Critical Medical Infrastructure and the Right to Repair: H.R. 7956 and Beyond

In November 2020, Massachusetts approved a ballot measure expanding upon a 2012 “right to repair” law in the state. This law required car manufacturers to let consumers access data on repairs to their vehicles. The amendment went further allowing manufacturers until 2022 to install a standard open data platform which will give independent mechanics access to data typically sent to a remote server.

This win comes as the right to repair movement is gaining ground more widely. The movement backs various legislative initiatives that would prohibit the types of restrictions manufacturers put on product repair; limiting who is permitted to repair things and how available parts are is a common tactic used by manufacturers. From a pro-consumer perspective, repair industry interest groups argue that companies owe information, access, and reparable products to the people supporting them.

“[R]egular consumers should be able to repair the products they’ve purchased[.]” This is the lobbyist stance taken by the movement and consumer interest groups alike––consumer groups like iFixit, a website that makes electronic repair kits accessible for all. Lately, the movement has its sight set on medical equipment: iFixit recently released a comprehensive medical equipment service database in order to assist biomedical engineering technicians in repairing everything from imaging equipment to ventilators.

Making repair files available to repair technicians in hospitals has not been more of a necessary public good than right now. While American medical device makers drastically increased production of ventilators in the summer of 2020 to combat COVID-19 shortages, a problem persists: there aren’t enough specialists to operate, maintain, and monitor these complex machines, especially in rural areas. Additionally, the machines that were mass-produced to equip the Strategic National Stockpile at the height of the crisis were not built to last and require frequent maintenance.

Large device manufacturers shared the design specification “blueprints” for some of their ventilation devices, but this good faith act doesn’t go far enough. In the case of Medtronic, the manufacturer of the Puritan Bennett 560 portable ventilator, the public engineering files are complex, incomplete, and sometimes outdated.

With the United States being the global leader in new––and cumulative––COVID-19 cases, American legislators are taking notes from design guidelines in the European Union which approach right to repair from an energy efficiency perspective. While the legislative focus in the states is combatting the resource strain from the pandemic, legislators should aspire to mirror the zealous advocacy for repair rights seen in the EU.

The first brick was laid in August 2020, when Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Representative Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.) introduced H.R. 7965, The Critical Medical Infrastructure Right-to-Repair Act of 2020 (the Act), which would ease technician’s access to the information necessary for maintaining and repairing critical medical infrastructure. This initiative comes after a letter signed by over 300 technicians addressed to California legislators called for manufacturers to stop withholding necessary repair tools. The Act has an intended duration contingent on the life of the COVID-19 medical crisis, but the mechanism for accessible repair of medical equipment should extend beyond the point of crisis.