Privatised wheelchair service doesn’t meet patients’ needs

Only a few months into the privatised wheelchair services contract, patients (and their parents, in the case of children who use wheelchairs) are complaining at their treatment by Opcare Ltd – the company that the Clinical Commissioning Groups awarded the contract to in 2014.

Cllr Megan Swift is investigating complaints by parents of children with disabilities.

Fern Bast, a Hebden Bridge resident with very restricted mobility and in constant pain as a result of spinal degeneration, has complained at the treatment she’s received from Opcare at their outreach clinic site in Halifax.

Fern said,

“I am a proud supporter of our NHS and it grieves me greatly to see how the care is not only reduced for the people in need,  but also how the working conditions have been compromised by contract changes to a much-reduced service.

Neither my treatment, nor that of the Opcare staff member, meets the standard I expect from the NHS.”

Complaint to Calderdale Clinical Commissioning Group

In her complaint to Calderdale Clinical Commissioning Group, Fern Bast said:

“The service does not meet the needs of users and this is intolerable. I can speak up for myself and I am concerned others can’t. So not just for me but for all in need – sort this mess out and  make it clear to everyone what’s happening.

Why are Opcare allowed to provide a service worse than before? I would like a considered explanation of the commissioning process (I’ve read the report dated 10 July 2014) and that’s not enough for me.

I waive my right to privacy as I want this failure of service corrected.”

Opcare outreach clinic in unsuitable premises

Fern Bast spoke to Plain Speaker shortly after attending the Opcare outreach clinic in Halifax. She thought she was attending a fitting for a powered chair, but once there, was told she wasn’t eligible.

Fern is limited to the amount she can sit or stand each day. She has to pace herself carefully. She found the experience at the Opcare outreach clinic so shattering that it took her two days to recover.

The Opcare outreach clinic site in Halifax turned out to be one rented room in unsuitable GP premises – and the Opcare assessor had never been there before.

Fern struggled unaided to Opcare’s rented room and then sat on the nearest available chair. The Opcare assessor judged that this meant Fern was not eligible for a powered wheelchair, since she had walked and sat without support.

Fern said,

“There were two sets of automatic doors to go through and the second set were not working. Fortunately the taxi driver was there to help.

Not only were the facilities not suitable, the receptionist was unable to say how long I would be there, because she was working for the practice and not covering for the company hiring the room.

Information about treatment, waiting times and locations is a basic need for people with chronic pain and mobility problems to help pace. And to ensure transport home asap.

I was met by the Opcare staff member and shown to her rented office.

At no time was I offered assistance and no wheelchairs were visible to me.

I could have sat and asked for help in the doctors waiting area, but I just wanted to get the fitting done and to feel a step closer to freedom.

Just inside the door of the rented room I was offered a chair which I was grateful to sit in and gather myself. The Opcare assessor asked if I would prefer a chair with arms and I would usually say yes, but I couldn’t cope with more movement and fuss.

The chair with arms was at the far side of the room. Two folding chairs, one powered wheelchair, several boxes, papers and bags were between us. There was hardly room for the desk and two people.

I calculated that it was less stressful to sit with less support for a short while than to watch an upheaval and experience an unnecessary delay.

Then she told me I would not be eligible for a powered chair because I could walk and sit unaided.”

After being told of the appeal procedure, Fern then went through the fitting and test drive of the one chair available.  Fern said,

“We went around a car park and my wheel chair service provider admitted it was her first experience of the venue. Who did the health and safety assessment, I’d like to see it.

I passed my driving awareness test.

No info re safety devices, lights or bells – only the basic of how to drive on cambers and slopes in the car park.

Without any written information being offered I don’t know what is happening. I was not sure why we continued, but it seemed as if I will get a chair but only after an appeal from GP.

I hope I will be offered lessons on the roads so I can just get around safely with awareness.  I do not wish  to harm or cause harm to any one and needed to know I could use a chair safely.

It was for this reason I have not approached mobility hire companies because I felt their advice would be biased towards profit over care and an NHS paid-for system would be best quality advice and care.”

Plain Speaker has asked Opcare Ltd for information about their outreach clinic sites in Todmorden and Halifax – specifically: where they are; what wheelchairs are available there, and what the delays are likely to be in treating patients at these sites. Opcare Ltd has said they will get back to Plain Speaker with this information.

Effect of privatised contract on wheelchair services staff

As a result of her experience with Opcare, Fern is anxious about how the privatised contract affects the Opcare staff.

She said,

“Perhaps my assessor would not have been paid unless we went through the driving test? How can I know that I wasn’t just ‘jumping through hoops’ with no benefit to myself, just to tick a box on an invoice?

I felt cheated, tricked and stupid for allowing myself to believe I was engaging with a person who might have patient care as a priority.”


Staff cannot talk publicly about their work, terms and conditions so it’s hard to see how to put the Opcare assessor’s side of the story here.

But from talking with staff in other privatised bits of the NHS, I’ve heard that their working conditions worsen compared with conditions when they were employed by the NHS, and they experience a lot of pressure from trying to protect patient safety and provide good treatment when they’re under pressure to cut costs and increase profits.

At Locala, a company that provides community health services in Kirklees – as well as a few in Calderdale, only 47% of staff would recommend the company as a good place to work. (Info source: Locala Accounts 2013-14, p7)

With the support of her GP, Fern is appealing Opcare’s decision that she is not eligible for a powered chair –  despite having been told on a home visit last summer by the previous NHS wheelchair services provider, that she was eligible.

There are examples of the damage NHS privatisation does to services here.

Battle to get treatment

Since wheelchair services were privatised last September, Fern has had to battle to get the treatment she needs.

She only discovered by chance from a Macmillan nurse that the wheelchair contract had been changed.

The practice manager of her GP’s surgery helped her to track the new supplier down.

At this point Ms Bast discovered some of her records had been misplaced, so she hadn’t been informed that wheelchair services were now provided by Opcare Ltd.

In January 2015 she received her appointment for a fitting for a powered chair.

After all the difficulties she experienced at the unsuitable Opcare outreach clinic, Fern was told by the Opcare assessor that she could have requested a home visit.

Fern found this belated information “unbelievable”. She said,

“Given that I had only ever received one letter from the new suppliers for this appointment (when I believed it was to a wheel chair facility for fitting and checking driving ability) how would that happen?

I was expecting a further visit to my home with the chair, to see how I could cope in my surroundings and help with road sense and safety for myself and others.”

Questions to Calderdale Clinical Commissioning Group Governing Body

I have asked Calderdale Clinical Commissioning Group Governing Body to answer these questions when they meet on 12 March 2015:

  1. Given Fern Bast’s complaint to CCCG about her treatment by Opcare Ltd, what is the CCG doing to remedy the problems she’s experienced with the way Opcare Ltd is providing wheelchair services?
  2. How is the CCG monitoring Opcare Ltd’s delivery of the wheelchair services contract?
  3. What is it doing to make sure that other people who need wheelchairs won’t experience problems with Opcare, and that they will get the service they need, when they need it?
  4. Given that the CCG awarded Opcare Ltd the contract on the basis that its bid undercut the NHS provider’s bid, will it think again before privatising further NHS services?

There will be a Plain Speaker report on their answers after the meeting.

4 thoughts on “Privatised wheelchair service doesn’t meet patients’ needs

  1. Three years into the Opcare contract and I can tell you it has not improved. I have been going for 2 years with a change in needs and they have never assessed me (I moved from leeds clinic), they refuse to give a new chair until mine is 5 year old despite a progressive degenerative nerurological disease and the chair causing pain and limiting use. They state that 5 years is how long a chair should be kept if through a voucher. Ironically I got a £150 voucher from leeds near 4.5 years ago now and my chair cost £4.5k a charity funded it, Opcare just does not want to pay. I’m now told I can have an assessment early but won’t get the chair until April 2018 when old chair is 5 years old (hopefully they loose the contract)!! Staff a rude, don’t know what there doing, long waits and equipment not actually given to people.

    • That is so wrong Charlotte, is it ok if I tell Calderdale Clinical Commissioning Group (anonymising you)? Their Governing Body meetings forever have “patient stories” about how wonderful the CCG is so I think they should hear your patient story too for a bit of a reality check. I asked them recently about whether they were going to do anything about Opcare’s failings and got a brush off answer so I intend to go on telling them they are responsible as commissioners for making sure that this contract is honoured to meet patients’ needs and if not they have a duty to sort the problem, one way or another. Thanks for your comment. It might be worth you asking your Calderdale Councillors to take this up with the CCG, a friend of mine did that about Opcare and got her wheelchair problem sorted.

      • Yes please do. I have again submitted a complaint to the CCG to see if anything happens. I complained to health watch they asked for patient stories and nothing has happened and now health watch have asked for people to do voice recordings of how the service has helped them ‘quite simply it has not’. It is very frustrating when you are trying to remain in work, as indioendant as possible and basically be what society/government wants of disabled people but also what I want of myself and all you get is massive barriers by the people whom should understand. The opcare clinic is not even up to standard anyway as far as I read in NHS guidance wheelchair clinics should have facilities to test wheelchairs etc and Opcare in Elland is in an industrial estate where their private shop is and you have appointment in one of the rooms in back which don’t get me wrong are accessible. Although ironically their car park has no disabled bays and I have a WAV so i have to take 2 bays up. You really couldn’t make it up if you tried.

  2. Fern’s experiences are not unique. It has taken 4 years for me to find a suitable wheelchair, doing WCS’s job for them, and then get WCSs to actually provide it. A friend with spinal degredation is still trying to get a suitable chair issued, and has been sent away to “get the proper paperwork”. WCSs don’t have phones then?

    Adding pressure to also make a profit for shareholders is not the way to fix the problems that have become entrenched in many WCSs departments. Proper oversight and independent monitoring is.

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