‘Right to repair’ issue gains traction amid COVID-19 crisis

Stacy Wescoe//April 30, 2020

‘Right to repair’ issue gains traction amid COVID-19 crisis

Stacy Wescoe//April 30, 2020



It was in the early 2000s that the Right to Repair issue started taking hold, said Emma Horst-Martz, campaign associate with PennPIRG, the Pennsylvania branch of the U.S. PIRG, a consumer advocacy organization.

As vehicles became more computer driven, independent repair shops complained that they were being shut out of the repair process by dealers who refused to release technology information and access needed for third-party repair service. The refusal, in effect, forced consumers to go to the dealerships for major and minor repairs.

After legal action in Massachusetts, dealers began making the computer technology available to outside repair services and independent shops were able to resume repair work.

It’s a problem that has played out in other industries, Horst-Martz said, from consumer electronics to farming – but now with the coronavirus pandemic leading to the unprecedented demand for medical equipment, such as ventilators, Right to Repair has become a critical issue in the health care field.

Barbara Maguire, vice president of quality and healthcare technology management at ISS Solutions in Danville, saw the issue unfold at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville. With a quick response needed to the COVID-19 pandemic, more ventilators had to be put into service.

“We have a staff on site at hospitals every day,” Maguire said. “These folks are very well trained and help doctors maintain a wide variety of medical equipment.”

When ventilators were needed, her staff was able to go into storage and get older, unused ones and fix or refurbish them to put them back in service.

“Over 50 ventilators were pulled out, tested and we put them back on rotation,” she said. “If they had to wait for the manufacturer it could have been a long wait.”

She noted that there times when repair technicians were not allowed into hospitals to service the ventilators coming out of storage.

Now, due to the COVID-19 crisis, ventilator manufacturers have been more forthcoming with product specifications and repair information.

“GE, for example, has been really great in this crisis with getting more information online about their ventilators,” said Horst-Martz.

It saved time and lives.

A lawmaker responds

The crisis is part of what inspired Pennsylvania State Rep. Austin Davis, D-McKeesport, to sponsor legislation calling for Right to Repair reform. The proposed legislation would require manufacturers to provide parts, tools, service manuals and repair software to customers for a reasonable price.

“You bought it, you own it, you should be able to fix it,” said Davis in a statement. “This is a common-sense reform that couldn’t have been introduced at a better time. This measure not only gives power back to the consumer, but it also has the potential to help save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

While the ventilator availability issue is shining a light on Right to Repair, Maguire said it is an issue that spreads into many aspects of the medical equipment industry. With staff onsite, Maguire said ISS is available to fix or maintain equipment ranging from patient monitoring devices, to imaging equipment and laboratory technology.

She said some manufacturers, particularly in lab equipment and imaging technology, have been hesitant to open equipment up for third-party repair. Many have argued, reasonably, over the safety and liability concerns of having outside parties tinkering with their products.

“We’re not suggesting untrained people be able to repair medical equipment,” c said. In fact, she said, many larger health networks have been able to negotiate contracts with health equipment manufacturers to allow for their own repair work. “But the smaller health systems don’t have the ability to negotiate that kind of access with manufacturers,” she said.

Without access to schematics, software and replacement parts, medical facilities face a slower and more costly process of getting vital equipment fixed. Maguire noted that some manufacturer repair contracts can cost a hospital $100,000 per year.

“That adds to the cost of health care,” she said.

Many industries impacted

Horst-Martz emphasized that it’s not an issue in the health care industry alone. The farming industry has been hard hit by the proliferation of computerized equipment that can’t easily be self-serviced.

“Tractors are now similar to cars,” she said. “Farmers who have for generations repaired their own tractors now can’t unlock that software to make even simple repairs.”

For farmers who aren’t close to manufacturers’ service centers that can lead to long waits for repairs, which can be devastating.

“The crops aren’t going to wait,” Maguire said.

Even cell phones are impacted by the Right to Repair issue. While some brands make fairly serviceable models, others make their products virtually impossible to self-service, including having batteries that are glued into place, she said. “They’re designed to be unrepairable.”

Davis’ bill is one of 20 being proposed in state legislatures around the country. Horst-Martz said in Pennsylvania the bill is being supported by a coalition of local repair businesses, hospitals and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.