Coronavirus and unsafe working conditions for poultry workers

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

In these uncertain times of COVID-19, many workers are being exposed to the disease at poultry plants across the United States. Eater notes that many of these workers are Black, Latino, or immigrants earning low wages and working in overcrowded conditions to package the items that end up on the plates of many families across the States.

Let us dive in a little deeper. The Los Angeles Times has highlighted the spike in coronavirus and meat plants across the United States, with hundreds of reported cases in the last week. This is, of course, a concern to the food supply chain and worker safety. The Associated Press has reported that massive meat processing plants have temporarily closed due to workers contracting COVID-19. This raises concerns about shortages of beef, pork, and poultry. At the same time, workers are being exposed and are succumbing to COVID-19.

The New York Times also reported that workers are standing elbow-to-elbow to do the low-wage work of cutting and packing meat. Many have been on the front line of these packing plants while being sick because they cannot afford to stay home and sacrifice paychecks. Some have staged walkouts to protest being insufficiently protected. United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which has a seat on the National Consumers League’s Board of Directors, has engaged in talks with Cargill, which has agreed to give employees a $2/hour emergency pay increase in addition to a pay raise. The union and Cargill are working on ways to better practice social distancing within the packing plants. Increased sanitization and screening at the plants, and virtual health visits will be expanded for those seeking care health care.

Each day brings new information about COVID-19. When going to the store to purchase meat, let us remember that someone stood in a plant slaughtering and packing it. They are on the frontline risking their lives so that we can eat. UFCW is calling on ALL food employers to step up by developing ways to protect workers and by compensating them commensurate with the risks they are taking to deliver quality products to the grocery stores, restaurants, and family tables of America.

Multi-agency initiative invites public and private partners to collaborate on strategy to reduce food waste

Shaunice Wall is NCL’s Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow
An estimated 40 percent of food goes uneaten in the United States. Between 2007 and 2014, American consumers wasted nearly 150,000 tons of food per day. Yet, 40 million Americans struggle with hunger, including 12 million children.

Universal testing: What is the hold-up?

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

During this Covid pandemic, Americans have been incredibly patient and observant of guidelines for social distancing and staying home. But it can’t last forever. Where the heck is the universal testing for Covid-19? We’ve been talking about it for more than two months and yet you can’t get access to Covid-19 testing unless you’re showing symptoms of the virus. If, as experts believe, 25-50 percent of us might be carrying the virus without symptoms, what does that say?

It says we could be spreading the virus without knowing it! And yet we can’t get tested? We need greater accessibility to testing to know where we stand. If everyone could be tested each day to know if we do or don’t have the disease, or be tested for antibodies to Covid-19 to learn that we can fight the disease, we’d be better equipped to know what we’re dealing with and make smart decisions. Such universal testing can get the country back to work, especially at a time when the economy is in even worst shape since the Great Depression with the retail, restaurant, airline, entertainment, film and hotel industries ground to a halt and millions of workers across the economy out of jobs.

And take note: this kind of testing is possible because testing does not need to require a site visit. A study funded by UnitedHealth Group shows people can self-administer a diagnostic test with a much smaller swab, a process that should save potentially thousands of clinicians from being exposed to the virus while at the same time making the testing simpler. The study, which used data from 500 OptumCare patients, comes amid a parade of diagnostic test approvals for Coronavirus following weeks of criticism of the Trump administration and federal agencies for the lack of testing.

On March 24, the “White House Coronavirus Task Force reported in a briefing that “self-swabbing” options were going to be available that week, so the study supports what the federal government is pursuing.” That’s almost a month ago – so where are they?

What’s worse is that the United States is considered well behind other countries when it comes to the availability of testing generally. Why can’t we figure out this solution?

NCL friend and brilliant inventor of the SawStop, a safe table saw, Steve Gass, came up with a novel approach to employ universal testing that would get most of us back to work. His proposal is below. I’ll end with it, because it says it all:

A cure for the coronavirus pandemic already exists. Contrary to our expectation that cures manifest exclusively as biological agents – medicine for the sick or vaccines for the healthy – the cure for this outbreak is technological. From the Oval Office to Kansas kitchens we’re already talking about it, even while failing to recognize its true potential. Those elusive Covid-19 tests, if utilized daily, by every American, have the power to save our lives and our economy within the month.

To date, the U.S. has only employed testing reactively — to diagnosis a disease after symptoms indicate probable infection — which wins us no real advantage when epidemiological evidence indicates up to 40 percent of transmissions occur covertly, days before symptoms appear, and CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield estimates that 25 percent of carriers (and spreaders) may never manifest symptoms at all. We can continue to hide out at home indefinitely, banking on a vaccine in 12-18 months, but public health expert Dr. David Katz calls that a recipe for “ineffectively fighting the contagion even as we are causing economic collapse.”

Instead, we must deploy tests offensively. They must become our mass-produced instruments of war.

Here’s the plan of attack: one month from today, each of us is tested daily for Covid-19, obtaining immediate results. If positive, you isolate at home and instantaneously eliminate the virus’s prime advantage: its ability to stealthily propagate from “people out there shedding the virus who don’t know that they’re infected,” according to infectious diseases expert Dr. Jeffery Shaman. Meanwhile, the healthy among us freely move back out into our communities, flashing our daily health certificates like boarding passes to gain admittance to workplaces, schools, and stores, certain we won’t harm or be harmed by the people with whom we interact. We’ll have immediately shifted, as economists Dr. Paul Romer and Dr. Alan M. Garber insist we must, to a “targeted approach that limits the spread of the virus but still lets most people go back to work.” The very first day we implement universal daily testing and selective isolation commerce resumes, the viral transmission rate plummets, and the virus exponentially decays. The crisis ends.

The challenge in this crisis of scarcity, when too few can access masks let alone diagnostic devices, is to build enough testing units, now, so that all 330 million Americans can be tested daily. This will require at least 1 million community-based machines adapted for parallel processing of multiple tests simultaneously. If we begin tomorrow and labor 24 hours per day it will take just under 12 days to produce and deploy a million machines at a production rate of one unit every second. That’s not just daunting. It’s mind-boggling.

But it’s not impossible.

In May of 1940 the Greatest Generation listened incredulously as President Roosevelt challenged them to “harness the efficient machinery of America’s manufacturers” to produce 50,000 combat aircraft in 12 months to confront the “approaching storm” of a global war – a goal exceeding the total of all planes built in the U.S. since the Wright brothers’ initial 1903 flight. No one believed an 18-ton plane with 450,000 parts and 360,000 rivets in 550 different sizes could be mass produced, let alone efficiently. But our repurposed auto factories did just that, with Ford Motor Co. churning out one bomber per hour at peak production to secure our safety and win the war.

Our nation still has the know-how, the manufacturing infrastructure, and the industrial resources to save ourselves again by building and deploying a million Covid-19 testing units by the end of the month if we make it our highest national priority starting today. We have men and women yearning to go back to work and we must employ them to optimize established supply chains, man assembly lines, and reinvigorate distribution channels. No single state’s factories can meet the one-unit-per-second output required, but pooled national resources can. The cost and effort will be substantial, certainly, but pale in comparison to the misery wreaked if we let a quarter million Americans die instead.

Make no mistake: World War III is upon us. We must once again wake the sleeping giant, mustering America’s industrial might to save ourselves and the whole world with us by rallying resources to test each of us, over and over again, as if our livelihoods and lives depend on it.

Because they do.

—–

Stephen Gass, PhD, J.D., is a physicist, a patent attorney, and the retired President and founder of SawStop, LLC, the nation’s foremost supplier of premium table saws and the world leader in table saw safety. He is the principal inventor on over 100 patents covering electrical and mechanical innovations in power tools.

Safe takeout options under coronavirus

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

The way we get food now has totally changed due to the Covid-19 virus. Most us around the nation no longer go to our favorite bar or restaurant or stop at the local coffee shop for a bite to eat or to socialize and have a drink. The mandatory closure shutdown of restaurants with the exception of takeout or delivery is our only option of enjoying a meal not cooked at home. Beyond that, we may ask the questions: first is it safe? Second: is it ethical to potentially expose a delivery worker to what we are all trying to avoid the risk of Covid-19?

The answer to the first question is yes, with some caveats. Currently food is not associated with the transmission of Covid-19, according to the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration. However, Vox reports that there is growing evidence of fecal/oral transmission, which means you can ingest the virus shed in feces through inadequate handwashing or contaminated food and water. Therefore, handlers of food who carry the virus can spread the virus to food items. In theory, all restaurants have to follow food safety rules, and there are extra measures that have been put in place due to Covid-19. However, we have seen Chipotle and other restaurants spread infections by poor food handling.

The second question is complicated, but here are some thoughts. Currently delivery workers are in the middle of a pandemic but still have to work to support their families and pay bills. Eater suggests that if customers forego take-out food, delivery workers and restaurants struggling to provide during the crisis could be put out of business.

We recommend ordering take-away food from your favorite restaurants and, even better, support them by buying gift cards for post-pandemic future meals when restaurants re-open.

Your first option is to is use the in-house restaurant delivery option, since third-party apps take commission fees, which reduce the profit for restaurants. Here are some apps that are taking the necessary measures in protecting their workers and helping out the restaurant industry.

  • UberEats is working to provide drivers with disinfectant. With limited supplies they are working with suppliers to source as much as possible. Any delivery worker who is diagnosed with Covid-19 or is individually asked to self-isolate by a public health authority will receive financial assistance for up to 14 days. UberEats customers have the option to choose how they would like their orders delivered, including selecting “leave at door” during checkout. UberEats has also waived the delivery fee for more than 100,000 independent restaurants across the USA and Canada.
  • Postmates launched the Postmates Fleet Relief Fund to help fleet workers cover medical expenses related to Covid-19, regardless of diagnosis. Active members of the fleet who receive a positive diagnosis for Covid-19 or who are required to self-quarantine based on infection may be eligible to access additional funds to offset up to two weeks of lost income while they recover. Postmates has also introduced non-contact deliveries, which allows distancing between customers and delivery workers. Postmates will also waive commission fees for businesses in the San Francisco Bay area.
  • DoorDash (also owns Caviar) is providing financial assistance to eligible delivery workers and Caviar couriers who are diagnosed with Covid-19 or quarantined. DoorDash is consulting with public health officials and working with restaurants to enhance their food preparation protocols. The default delivery method has been changed to the non-contact option to minimize contact between the delivery workers and customers. All new and existing DoorDash partner restaurants will receive commission relief and marketing support.
  • Grubhub is offering a one-time pay adjustment to help with medical expenses and loss of income if a driver tests positive with Covid-19. Grubhub will also support drivers who have been ordered by a public health authority or licensed medical personnel to self-isolate due to a risk of spreading Covid-19, and if a driver’s account has been individually restricted as a result of information provided to Grubhub by a public health authority regarding the risk of spreading Covid-19. Grubhub has also introduced contact-free delivery, which allows customers to request having their delivery left at the front door to avoid less contact.
  • On March 9, Instacart introduced a new sick pay policy that all part-time employees including in-store shoppers now have access to sick pay, an accrued benefit that can be used as paid time off for absences from work due to illness or injury. This pay accrual will be backdated from the start of the year for all in-store shoppers. Instacart is also offering 14 days of pay for any part-time employee and full-service shoppers who are diagnosed with Covid-19 or are under mandatory isolation or quarantine directed by local, state, or public health authority. This assist will be available for 30 days. Instacart has also introduced “Leave at my Door Delivery” to all customers across North America.

It is important that we minimize contact with others since daily things are changing in relation to Covid-19. However, delivery services are really stepping up to keep customers safe and, for that, we should all be grateful. Remember to support your local restaurants by requesting non-contact delivery!

 

Kudos to merchants fighting price gouging

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

There I was, searching for hand sanitizer to help keep reducing my risk of infection. I had scoured my local stores for hand sanitizer, to no avail. At last, desperate, I found a tiny bottle of sanitizer on the shelf at my local gas station. A bottle that usually retails for around a dollar was marked up to $3.99. What choice did I have? I paid the money and walked out of the store.

Like moths to the flame, profiteers cannot resist the allure of easy money. In this time of national emergency, it should perhaps come as little surprise that those who wish to make a quick buck off the desperation of consumers are finding few obstacles in their way.

In past natural and man-made disasters, whether in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or the 2008-09 financial crisis, there were always crooks who sought to deprive those in need of their last penny. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis seems to be little different in this respect.

Price gouging is perhaps the most immediate threat. Most of us are aware of being asked to pay $5.00 for a bottled water in an airport or amusement park. In a time of crisis, however, the consequences of hiking prices outrageously is more than just a matter of a parched throat. For consumers in desperate need, it can come down to a choice between avoiding infection or paying the rent.

At a time when health care workers and first responders are putting their lives on the line to care for coronavirus patients, it is outrageous to see stories of unscrupulous sellers marking up the price on masks, hand sanitizer, disinfectant and, yes, even toilet paper.

Price gouging in times of crisis is illegal in most states. For example, Maryland’s anti-gouging statute prohibits raising the price of many consumer goods and services that increase the seller’s profit by more than 10 percent while the COVID-19 emergency declared by Governor Larry Hogan is in effect. California has a similar statute, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine. Price gouging is also illegal where I live, in the District of Columbia.

While state laws are important, enforcement alone won’t solve this problem. Reputable businesses must also play their part to keep price gouging off their shelves. This is one reason I was especially encouraged to see that that the biggest seller of consumer items on the planet, Amazon.com, stepped out so decisively against price gouging.

Last month, the company issued a policy that clearly states: “Amazon has zero tolerance for price gouging and longstanding policies to prevent this harmful practice.” In practice, this means the company is working overtime to remove price gougers from its marketplace, forwarding reports of price gouging to law enforcement, and making it clear to their sellers that price gouging is not allowed.

Amazon has removed more than half a million products and suspended more than 3,900 seller accounts in the United States.

The overwhelming majority of sellers on sites like Amazon, eBay, and other online marketplaces are honest. But these e-commerce marketplaces are where millions of consumers are going to find much-needed products. Particularly for consumers who are at high risk, these online services can be a lifeline, enabling them to stay home, avoid going out into public, and decreasing their chances of contracting the virus.

We should be very happy that there are state laws prohibiting price gouging and very grateful that Amazon has taken such a strong stance in protecting consumers by monitoring and prohibiting its sellers from gouging consumers and others during this terrible pandemic.

Ten years later: ACA consistently proves to be America’s safety net, especially in times of crisis

Nissa Shaffi

By Nissa Shaffi, NCL Associate Director of Health Policy

Ten years ago, the United States Congress adopted the Affordable Care Act (ACA), after many decades of unsuccessful attempts at achieving universal health care by advocates. For the first time, the ACA provided coverage options for every American across the economic spectrum, expanding Medicaid in many states and offering the self-employed access to insurance on the open exchange. For NCL, the ACA is the safety net program the founders of the League sought to see put in place from the organization’s inception at the turn of the 20th Century.

Today with the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus across America, patients’ access to health care is more critical than ever. Yet despite the clear need we all have for health care coverage, over the past decade, the ACA has been under attack by conservatives in Congress and survived multiple attempts at repeal. The latest came from the Texas v. United States case – and now it threatens to render the entire ACA unconstitutional, following the repeal of the ACA’s  individual mandate provision. Why conservatives wish to deprive people of health care escapes us at the NCL. In fact, the ACA has transformed the way Americans interact with the healthcare system.

Throughout its short life, the ACA has cemented into law numerous consumer health protections and has expanded access to health coverage for over 20 million people. 37 states have expanded Medicaid, the health care program for low-income Americans. Prioritizing preventive care, the ACA mandated that health insurance providers  cover preventive services for all adults, women, and children – free of cost to the patient. The ACA also made it unlawful for insurers to deny or reduce benefits based on preexisting conditions. These include diagnostic included screenings, vaccines, birth control, and access to certain medications. For the first time, those 26 under could retain their health coverage through their parents’ insurance plans.

Research has shown that ACA Medicaid Expansion has improved access to care, financial security, health outcomes, economic mobility, and have reduced uncompensated care. Despite the progress made by the ACA, there are still 29 million uninsured people in the United States. If the ACA is repealed, 25 million Americans may lose their coverage overnight, without the promise of its replacement. Perhaps the COVID-19 outbreak will change the calculus and bring home how devasting it would be to repeal the ACA. Insurers would no longer be obligated to provide protections offered by the law, allowing plans to deny coverage indiscriminately, leaving millions of families along with low-income and high-risk individuals without care.

The true impact of the ACA will be even more apparent as the national continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic in the coming months. COVID-19 has upended the economy and affected virtually every industry and has caused unemployment to soar. On March 21, unemployment claims reached a record 3.3 million – the highest level of jobless claims in history (the Great Depression saw levels of 24 percent unemployment at its peak but there was no unemployment insurance safety net during the 1930s and thus no jobless claims, just breadlines). Economist Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute estimates that by summer, approximately “14 million workers will lose their jobs due to the coronavirus shock.”

A report by FAIR Health estimates that potential treatment for COVID-19, resulting in an average six-day hospital stay, could total to a whopping $73,300 for the uninsured: a devastating prospect in the middle of a global financial collapse. With the increased loss of employer-based health insurance, the ACA proves to be more crucial than ever as individuals and families may turn to the health insurance marketplace to secure coverage. NCL is backing legislation – and the health plans support this too – to move workers losing jobs and health insurance to the COBRA program with heavy subsidies so they can ride out the pandemic –  COVID-19 has exposed so many severe deficiencies in the healthcare system. To learn more about statewide efforts to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, click here.

While the fate of the ACA remains uncertain, it is still the law of the land. If you are concerned about loss of coverage during this time, several state-run health plans have enacted Special Enrollment Periods (SEPs) in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, click here to learn more. NCL believes that healthcare is a right and that protections offered by the ACA make this country a far stronger, more robust nation. We will continue to work diligently to protect universal access affordable and reliable health coverage. To learn more about what’s at stake and how you can help prevent the potential repeal of the ACA, click here.

Fighting for crucial consumer, worker protections and fair outcomes in coronavirus environment

March 27, 2020: A message to our online community about how we are working hard to ensure crucial protections for consumers and workers in this time of uncertainty.

Sally Greenberg discussing CBD on Capitol Hill

Coronavirus update: Fighting for crucial protections, fair outcomes

A message to our online community

In this critical time, as our nation is gripped by the COVID-19 virus, we want you to know that we remain 100% committed to doing everything we can to help stop the spread of the virus and to fight for consumer and worker protections in this rapidly changing economy.

Although we are now doing so remotely in order to maintain our safety and the safety of our loved ones, NCL staff continues to work behind the scenes to ensure that the interests of consumers and workers are not forgotten in the rush to pass legislation and make executive branch decisions.

Below we’ve highlighted what’s happening and hope that you agree that our work – and your support – are more important than ever.

Pushing Congress to protect passengers in COVID-19 relief legislation

The pandemic has reduced passenger air traffic to a trickle, putting the airlines in deep economic distress. A strong, well-functioning, and safe airline industry is essential to our country. That said, NCL does not believe that giving a blank check to the industry is in consumers’ best interest. That’s why NCL led a coalition of consumer and air passenger advocates to call on Congress to include strong passenger protections in the COVID-19 relief bill. We will continue to advocate for reforms to the airline’s business practices, like excessive fees and shrinking seats, in the weeks and months to come.

Fighting COVID-19 scams

We are actively reaching out to consumers to educate them about how to spot coronavirus-related scams. We are already seeing reports of scammers using this moment of national emergency to sell bogus coronavirus “cures” and target seniors with phony investment scams. That’s why we issued a statement applauding Attorney General William Barr’s order to all U.S. Attorneys to ramp up efforts to shut down COVID-19 scams and are continuing to alert our readers about emerging trends.

We are also using our Consumers for Safe CBD platform (4safeCBD.org) to highlight false product claims made by unscrupulous CBD manufacturers who are using the crisis to promote their products .

Healthcare in the new environment

In response to a request for help from FDA, NCL is supporting the agency’s efforts to expose bogus coronavirus tests, treatments, and cures. In addition, we signed onto a letter as part of our adult vaccine coalition to ask for ZERO CO-PAYs for all Medicare Part D vaccines, which could include COVID-19 vaccines when they become available. With safety as a paramount concern, NCL is supporting the American Nurses Association’s call to action to increase Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for nurses.

Crucial worker protections

NCL persists in its fight for worker protections and joined a letter opposing the exclusion of immigrants from the omnibus relief package. We also signed onto an effort to ensure the Postal Service can remain fully functional during this crisis and beyond. The USPS is predicting that an economic recession could pose a “serious threat to the near-term viability of the Postal Service,” and has asked Congress to give USPS more than $7 billion each year for the next two years.

NCL joined allies at farmworker organizations in expressing concerns related to exposure of the largely uninsured, financially fragile farmworker community to COVID-19 and asking political leaders to be mindful of the unique concerns, considerations, and risks confronting farmworkers.

Looking ahead

NCL remains actively engaged in working to properly ensure that relief packages address the interests of consumers and workers. We are very pleased that Congress will be providing cash assistance to our most vulnerable, and we continue to push for salary and benefit protections, particularly for those workers in the most seriously impacted industries.

In the coming days, stay tuned for news of our Trumpeter Awards Dinner, which we will host in October. We will be sending out a Save the Date and announcing our award recipients shortly.

Best wishes for staying safe and healthy, from all of us at NCL.

Sally Greenberg
Executive Director
National Consumers League

NCL: #NeverMoreRelevant

Coronavirus and food safety: What you need to know

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

Perhaps some of the only good news about the Covid-19 is that food is not the primary way that the virus can be spread. According to Harvard Medical School, “We are still learning about transmission of COVID-19. It’s not clear if this is possible, but if so, it would be more likely to be the exception than the rule. That said, COVID-19 and other coronaviruses have been detected in the stool of certain patients, so we currently cannot rule out the possibility of occasional transmission from infected food handlers. The virus would likely be killed by cooking.”

Great, but not all foods can or are intended to be cooked – think of deli meats, cole slaw, potato salad, cheeses, salads, fresh fruits and vegetables, breads, pastry, butter, cream cheese; so if the mainstay of a deli or restaurant is “fresh” foods, spreading the virus is a real threat if the right precautions are taken.

And COVID-19 has made us all keenly aware of the importance of wiping surfaces and washing hands frequently, especially when handling food. We also know that COVID-19 can’t typically be transmitted from food or from food packaging. But we do have suggestions.

Food safety measures one should take:

  • Wash your hands the right way: Use plain soap and water- skip the antibacterial soap, scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails for about 20 seconds, if you need to time yourself sing the chorus of your favorite song twice. Rinse your hands, and then dry them with a clean towel. Remember to wash your hands often especially since COVID-19 lives on surfaces for an extended period.
  • Wash surfaces and utensils after each use: Wash cutting boards, utensils countertops with hot, soapy water, especially if you had raw meat, seafood, poultry or eggs on these surfaces. Don’t cross contaminate!
  • Remember it is very important to wash your dishcloths in a hot cycle of your washing machine, sometimes we forget this key element to food safety.
  • Learn more from FoodSafety.gov.

Food safety is paramount in our day-to-day lives – it’s so important that we take the necessary steps not to expose ourselves – whether eating in a restaurant or cooking at home, to COVID-19. Remember eat healthy, nutritious foods and take all the steps needed in preparing a safe meal for you and your family.

Special message from NCL’s Fraud.org about coronavirus scams – National Consumers League

Special COVID-19 warnings: Scammers are pouncing on the opportunities presented by fear and uncertainty in our new environment. Don’t be a victim!

Fraud.orgIt’s a stressful time for consumers across the United States, with businesses closed, schools shut down, and more than a hundred million citizens under shelter-in-place orders. Unfortunately, scammers see this emergency as an opportunity to defraud consumers of hard-earned money we will all desperately need in the weeks and months ahead.

We’ve seen disturbing reports of all kinds of scams linked to the coronavirus epidemic, from sham “cures” being hawked on fly-by-night websites to phishing schemes seeking consumers’ mouseclicks with scary messages about economic collapse, and “pump and dump” schemes to get consumers to invest in coronavirus-related stocks.

With the end of the national emergency nowhere in sight, the situation with coronavirus scams is likely to get much worse before it gets better. Here at Fraud.org, we have many years of experience witnessing how scammers prey on citizens in times of disaster and distress, and we foresee challenging months ahead for consumers. But we are on your side, and we’ll be doing our best to bring you information you can use to spot and avoid these scams, as well as resources you can use to help protect your friends and family. For right now, here are some basic tips you can use to reduce your risk of becoming a victim:

  • Trust the experts. If a message you’re seeing is at odds with information being put out by trusted sources like the Centers for Disease Control, Federal Trade Commission, Food and Drug Administration, or your local health officials, there’s a high likelihood it’s a scam.
  • Check out this message from the FDA about Fraudulent Coronavirus Tests, Vaccines and Treatments.
  • You are likely to see messages urging you to act quickly, whether to buy a coronavirus “treatment” or send money for a can’t-miss investment. Remember that fraudsters try to get you to act before you think. Take your time.
  • In a time of social distancing, scammers will likely try to prey on consumers’ isolation to ensnare them in schemes like romance scams, lottery scams, or other scams where the criminals earn their targets’ trust over time.
  • Remember that scammers follow the headlines just like the rest of us. In particular, we expect scams promising COVID-19 stimulus checks to get more prevalent as the government’s coronavirus relief efforts ramp up.
  • The Federal Trade Commission has a wealth of information about coronavirus-related scams. Visit ftc.gov/coronavirus for up-to-date information.

Idaho Patient Act a model for other states for protecting consumers from medical debt

I spent a week last month in Boise with two members of the staff of Melaleuca—a company that makes more than 400 nutritional, cleaning, personal care, and cosmetic products—making lobbying visits to the Idaho legislature. Katie Hart and Jay Cobb work for Frank Vandersloot, CEO of Melaleuca. Vandersloot is a highly successful, conservative businessman who is committed to protecting Idaho residents from abusive medical debt collection practices after discovering that one of his employees was hit with thousands of dollars in bills—including hefty lawyers’ fees and court costs—based on a $294 medical debt that she couldn’t even identify. The stark reality is that 50 percent of bankruptcies in America are caused by medical debt. He was championing a bill called the Idaho Patient Act, House Bill 515.

Many people believe federal law provides broad protections for people in debt. While the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), enforced by Federal Trade Commission, makes it illegal for debt collectors to use abusive, unfair, or deceptive practices when they collect debts, it doesn’t address how debts are calculated or curb predatory fees, penalties and court costs.

NCL has worked with Melaleuca for several years, first to fight a bill in Congress that would have essentially legalized pyramid scheme activity. Last October, I flew to Melaleuca headquarters in Idaho Falls to meet nearly half of the state’s legislators who came to town as part of their tour of businesses in Idaho. At that gathering, Vandersloot discussed his hope to pass a bill to address these predatory collection practices, aiming his fire at the practice of ginning up the cost to patients of medical debts with thousands in lawyers’ and court fees; often patients have no idea where the debt is from and debt collectors aren’t required to provide that information to them. The Idaho Patient Act addresses that issue.

Vandersloot also puts his money where his mouth is: not only did he propose a legislative remedy, he and his wife Belinda created a $1 million fund to provide legal counsel to Idahoans who have been hit with these attorney bills. Consumer advocates like NCL have been working for decades to curb the excesses of this industry. But to see  a conservative CEO take on this issue gives the effort a new push.

Sticking up for the little guy is not out of character for Vandersloot. He spoke with the same fervor when we worked together fighting a bill that would have legalized pyramid schemes. In neither case was there any financial reward coming to Melaleuca—Vandersloot took a stand on this issue because he felt it was the right thing to do. Though we may disagree on a host of other matters, on this we are aligned and that is a good thing for vulnerable consumers. Strange bedfellows are a big advantage when it comes to getting things done in the political arena.

Katie Hart has been wisely deployed to live and work in Boise while the legislature is in session and navigate this important bill through the complicated legislative process. She’s a smart and charismatic lawyer—she and Jay Cobb, an expert strategist, could teach Lobbying 101: they’ve met with the Idaho Hospital Association, Idaho doctors, insurance companies, and the Idaho trial lawyers and revised the bill to address their concerns. 

Specifically, the Idaho Patient Act proposes the following:

  1. All health care providers must submit all charges for procedures performed to an insurance carrier within 45 days.
  2. Within 60 days, the patient must receive a summary of services rendered during treatment and recovery, including the names and contact information for all entities that may be billing the patient separately, such as an individual doctor.
  3. All providers must then send a final statement with a total amount owed by the patient after insurance. The bill must correspond with the original list of services.
  4. Health care providers must wait 60 days after sending the final notice before charging a patient interest on an outstanding bill and hiring a collection agency. They must wait 90 days from the final statement before they take “extraordinary collection actions,” which means a lawsuit, or reporting a patient to a credit bureau for failure to pay.
  5. Finally, in medical debt cases that result in litigation, the legislation limits the amount attorney fees and costs that can be shifted to the patient to $350 for uncontested cases and $750 for contested cases. Currently, there is no official cap for fees that can be charged to delinquent patients by collection agencies and their representing lawyers.

In Boise, my first order of business was to register in the Idaho capitol building as a lobbyist, even though I was only going to be there for the day.  We wanted to do everything by the book! For $11 the Secretary of State’s office put me into the system and off we went.

Jay Cobb explained that Idaho is very conservative where rules or regulations are frowned upon. Of the 70 members of the Idaho House, 56 are Republican and some of those lean far right. 14 are Democrats. Of the 35 members of the Senate, only 7 are Democrat. The Governor is Republican, as is the Secretary of State and the Attorney General.

Katie and Jay have been working for months with elected officials, revising the bill without compromising its impact, and last week the measure was  reported favorably from the House Business Committee by a 15-2 vote (after a 5 hour hearing with many witnesses and terribly sad stories). Adding to the challenge of getting this bill enacted the second Vice Chair of the Republican Party in Idaho, and a member of the Idaho legislature were adamantly opposed to the legislation because as their egregious medical debt collection practices were epicenter of the problem.  Now the bill goes to the full House and over to the Senate.

While in the state house, we met with Senator Grant Burgoyne, a democrat who has provided legal representation to the collections industry. His observation? this bill would rein in “bad actors,” and the collections industry as a whole doesn’t oppose it. Senator Michelle Stennett, a democrat from Ketchum, told us about the challenges of getting what she thought were reasonable measures out of committee in Idaho because members are so loathe to pass any laws. The longest serving Democratic House member told us she believes the bill will pass, and the very smart and entertaining newly elected Boise Representative Steve Berch, who ran five times as a democrat in a red district and finally got elected, also predicts a positive outcome for this bill.  

To cap off the day, both U.S. Senators were in the State House and I had the chance to say hello to one of them, Senator James Risch (R-ID) and meet his DC staff.

The calculus changes when a conservative CEO with political clout backs a bill to offer protections to consumers who -through no fault of their own -have medical debt. Thanks to Frank Vandersloot, Katie Hart and Jay Cobb and the whole team at Melaleuca for making their case to the Idaho legislature so persuasively.

We hope this bill gets enacted in Idaho. If it does, the law will become a template for other states to put reasonable guardrails around collection of medical debt and offer some much-needed consumer protections. And maybe we can even hope that Vandersloot’s willingness to use his clout and bully pulpit to speak out on behalf of those who have no voice will be emulated by other CEOs.

Postscript

On March 9, the Idaho Senate passed the Idaho Patient Act 32-1. On March 16 Idaho Governor Brad Little signed the bill into law.

Congratulations to Frank Vandersloot, Melaleuca’s CEO, to his talented team of Katie Hart and Jay Cobb, and to all the members of the Idaho state legislature, who stood up for consumers and understood that one in seven Idahoans struggle with medical debt.

To quote the words on the Hanukkah dreidel, “A great miracle happened there.”