By WBZ-TV Chief Correspondent Joe Shortsleeve

BOSTON (CBS) – Judith Labonte of Worcester has a number of health issues and she depends on her electric wheelchair to get around. “I can’t even really leave the apartment, never mind the building, without it,” she said. Judith found out exactly what that’s like when her chair broke back in June. She was stranded in her apartment for nearly two weeks. “I called the people that made it and they explained to me that Medicare has this new competitive bidding system and they did not win the bid so they couldn’t do the work,” she said.

Judith called Medicare to find out what she should do. A representative from Medicare told her a company called Lincare in Cherry Valley, Massachusetts could help. But when she called, they refused to help. “It’s frustrating,” she said. “People need the necessities of life.”

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Feeling trapped, Judith called Congressman Jim McGovern’s office for help. A staffer called Lincare and was also told the company would not fix a broken wheelchair. “The whole thing is just too complicated and it’s not working,” said McGovern from his district office in Worcester.

The competitive bid process was designed to cut Medicare costs. Companies submit bid for selling durable medical equipment like wheelchairs, walkers, hospital beds and oxygen supply systems. The companies with the lowest bids get the Medicare contracts. The problem is that somehow repairs fell through the cracks and no company is obligated to do that work. “It’s frustrating as hell,” McGovern said. “When your wheelchair breaks, you can’t wait forever to get it fixed and you shouldn’t be making a thousand phone calls and be told no, no no,” he added.

The I-Team has learned that McGovern and several other members of Congress have now signed a letter urging the Obama administration to take another look at the bidding system. “We need more transparency. We need some questions answered,” McGovern said.

Eventually, Apple Home Care, the company that originally provided Judith with the chair fixed it, even though they were not contractually obligated to do so.

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Judith is grateful, but wonders how many people like her are getting the runaround.

“I’m sure there are a ton of people out there who need help,” she said.

The I-Team contacted Lincare on several occasions to ask why they refused to help. They never returned our calls.

A spokesperson from Medicare told the I-Team the agency is aware of the problem and is working on rewriting the rules to address this issue.

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