The government says it hopes two new pilot projects will end the postcode lottery in NHS provision of wheelchairs and lead to new national standards.
The projects will start immediately and take place across the NHS South West and NHS East of England regions, and aim to develop a more consistent approach to NHS wheelchair services over the next year.
Good practice will be shared “as it emerges”, with a report due at the end of the year.
The pilot projects are the latest in a series of government efforts to improve wheelchair services over the last eight years.
In 2002, health minister Jacqui Smith announced the launch of a “Wheelchair Services Collaborative”, a partnership between the Department of Health and the NHS Modernisation Agency that aimed to “support significant improvements in NHS wheelchair services”.
And in 2006, prime minister Tony Blair announced that a Transforming Community Equipment and Wheelchair Services programme would aim by the following year to find a new way of delivering equipment, with a bigger role for charities.
A key target of the latest pilot projects will be to reduce the lengthy delays that beset many wheelchair services across England.
The pilot projects will encourage local health trusts to work together, which could mean combining their spending power to get better value for money from suppliers.
And two leading disabled figures will work on the pilot projects as “wheelchair champions”.
Zara Todd, deputy chair of the government’s Equality 2025 network of disability equality advisers, and Dr Stephen Duckworth, a respected disability consultant and now project manager of a flexible new deal employment programme, will aim to ensure a national coordinated approach and “seek out innovations”.
Phil Hope, the care services minister, said: “Not having the right equipment to get about easily can restrict freedom, isolate and prevent an individual from fully contributing to society. That’s not right.
“By combining local NHS spending power and assessing people’s needs in the same way, wherever they live, we can provide better quality services and help people get on with their lives.”
The disabled crossbench peer Baroness Masham – who has raised in the Lords the postcode lottery faced by users of wheelchair services – welcomed the pilots.
She contacted her “absolutely useless” local wheelchair service in north Yorkshire nine months ago to ask for a new wheelchair cushion. She said: “They don’t answer the telephone. They don’t do anything. It’s really frustrating.”
On another occasion, the wheelchair service in Westminster took a year to provider a support for her wheelchair after she broke both her legs.
On both occasions she ended up buying the equipment herself because of the delays.
She said: “It is absolutely ridiculous how long it takes. If you need them, you need them quickly, that’s what they don’t realise.
“I am actually very pleased to hear about the pilots. I hope something good will come out of it.”
The Muscular Dystrophy Campaign investigated wheelchair services and found average waiting times for a powered wheelchair varied widely between primary care trusts (PCTs).
It found disabled people in Bolton waited between two-and-a-half and 12 weeks compared with those in Birmingham north and east who waited 18 months for the same service.
Its investigation also uncovered “huge regional variations” in how much PCTs spent on wheelchair services and how much they were willing to contribute towards wheelchairs.
Robert Meadowcroft, the charity’s director of policy and campaigns, welcomed the pilot schemes and said the charity was “pleased that the government was acting on the shocking waiting times people living with muscle disease can be forced to endure to receive powered wheelchairs”.
But he expressed concern at the lack of a timetable for the schemes to be extended across the country.
He added: “People with muscle disease need action now to enable them to receive the right equipment they need for independence at the right time.”
And he said he hoped the scheme would not meet the fate of Transforming Community Equipment and Wheelchair Services, as the government had yet to publish the wheelchair part of that scheme.
The new pilot projects were welcomed by Whizz-Kidz, the disabled children’s mobility charity, which has been working with London primary care trusts and NHS London to develop a better way of providing wheelchair services.
Ruth Owen, chief executive of Whizz-Kidz, said NHS provision of wheelchairs for children and young people was “fragmented”, with many trusts having long waiting-lists and using their own eligibility criteria.
She said Whizz-Kidz was “extremely hopeful” that the pilot projects would be an “important and practical step” towards national reform.
A DH spokesman said: “Earlier work in Transforming Community Equipment and Wheelchair Services was intended to inform the thinking in developing a new commissioning model for wheelchair services. The issues highlighted in this work have informed our current programme.
“However, the new plan has been developed to reflect the significant changes in service commissioning in recent years through initiatives like World Class Commissioning and Transforming Community Services.
“In the same way, we have updated our approach to wheelchair services since the 2006 report Out and About.”
23 March 2010