Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega and you're listening to The Takeaway. We're all feeling the economic crunch from the COVID-19 pandemic, from workers who've been laid off or furloughed to businesses that have had to close their doors but now as many businesses face continuing losses.
Some say they're attempting to stay afloat in ways that consumers might find questionable, from salons to dentist offices, to nursing homes, businesses around the country, some are charging hidden COVID-19-related fees for covering things like PPE, disinfection services and other things consumers may not be aware of. Hannah Denham is a National Business Reporter with The Washington Post and she's here to help us break it down. Hannah, thanks for joining me.
Hannah Denham: Thanks so much for having me.
Tanzina Vega: What kinds of fees are we talking about generally?
Hannah Denham: We've seen a range of fees from businesses across the country. We've seen a $5-disinfection charge in a hair salon to up to $1,200 in retroactive services for food and cleaning at a Senior Living Center. What these fees have in common though, is that they are often undisclosed until the customer gets a bill.
Tanzina Vega: $1,200, was that something that was charged to an individual?
Hannah Denham: Yes, individuals at the Senior Living Center were charged $1,200 each. It was later refunded after the Attorney General in Michigan took action, but that's just the most egregious example I've seen.
Tanzina Vega: Hannah, how common has this practice become among different types of businesses?
Hannah Denham: It's something that's hard to numerically track. I surveyed and reached out to Attorneys General offices and financial departments in all 52 states and territories. I found that in at least 29 of those states, consumers have filed at least 510 complaints of these surcharges at different businesses. This is something that we can track here that's growing.
Tanzina Vega: Were there certain industries and businesses that were more likely to charge these types of fees? You mentioned facilities for the elderly, is that one of the more egregious examples that we're seeing?
Hannah Denham: That is definitely one of the more common and the most expensive surcharges I've seen, but I've also seen a lot of reports from patients at dentist offices, other doctor's appointments. We've seen it in hair salons and restaurants, any sort of medical care facility or some business that requires close contact, that's where we're seeing these PPE fees.
Tanzina Vega: Thinking as a business owner, let's say you've had a tough year, no doubt about that. Adding to that pressure is now the fact that many of these outlets and many of these businesses do, as you mentioned, have close contact and have to be safe. Is it unfair to charge consumers?
Hannah Denham: It's definitely been rough for businesses. The cost of PPE has gone up dramatically. That's why the American Dental Association says that dentist offices are often charging these fees. For the Restaurant Industry, Coronavirus fees are sometimes a way to offset the increased expenses that they have, to operate under restricted occupancy. Yes, extra fees aren't fun especially when they're a surprise. I think what consumers really hope for from these businesses, is that they're disclosed upfront.
Tanzina Vega: Why is it that consumers are picking up these fees? Why aren't the federal state and local government doing something to help businesses mitigate some of these additional costs?
Hannah Denham: I think that's a question that both consumers and businesses are asking. CARE's funding has run out for a long time for a lot of these businesses, especially those who are locally owned. Funding for local and state governments is even hard to come by. I think this is a situation that consumers are frustrated that they're picking up the bill on, but in the case of dentist offices and other medical care facilities charging these fees.
The issue really should fall with the insurers, to cover these fees for the healthcare providers in their network. That's what a lot of state governments are encouraging right now.
Tanzina Vega: Hannah, how likely is it that insurance companies will actually agree to cover additional charges? Could this become standard practice going forward to take on these additional charges?
Hannah Denham: It definitely depends on the state and the insurance policies that are in practice there. At least in New York, it is legally required for these insurers to refund any patients that have had to pick up these fees, and to encourage the healthcare providers in their network to stop charging these fees if they have done so, but it really does depend on the state.
Tanzina Vega: You're using the word “encourage” I have a couple of questions there. Number one, a lot of folks may not even be aware that they're being charged these fees particularly, but the second thing is encouraging companies to do the right thing and requiring companies to do the right thing are two different things. Are there any states, Attorneys Generals that you spoke to, that are now thinking of ways to create legislation, to be more clear about how companies what the limits are in charging consumers these types of fees?
Hannah Denham: You're right. It's legally really murky because a lot of these states don't actually have laws that protect against hidden fees or even price gouging, which some feel like this is an instance of because we're in a public-health crisis. Some of these states did adopt price gouging laws in March at the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, but not all have these laws. It really depends on the state. In California, we know that hidden fees are illegal. In New York, the Department of Financial Services is taking legal action to keep insurers in check, but it really does depend on the jurisdiction of where you live.
Tanzina Vega: How much of a choice do consumers have? You have a choice to say you don't want to dine at this establishment because you don't want to pay that fee. That could be a choice, but if you're at a dentist or doctor's office, that you're there for work that needs to be done. You've taken the time off, your insurance has approved the visit, and now you're being told you need to pay this additional fee. Consumers may not have a choice in the matter, is there anything that can be done to prevent that from happening, to giving consumers a choice?
Hannah Denham: That is definitely the issue here. I talked to one woman in Ohio who was charged the $10, I believe Coronavirus fee at her dentist office, for services that she had not received yet. She refused to pay the fee. Now, the dentist office is refusing to continue with her dental surgery that she needs, so she just feels like she's in a bind. She's reported it to the Attorney General's office, but so far nothing has happened. She just feels stuck.
I think a lot of consumers, it doesn't feel like a choice if this fee is being slapped on at the end of the bill. I think that one thing you can do is report the issue to the Attorney General, to any financial regulator that you have locally, but even then that takes time and there's no promise of being refunded. It really is a tough situation for these consumers.
Tanzina Vega: Hannah, once long ago, and I'm being silly when I say long ago, it was only a couple of years ago, particularly under the Obama administration. There was something called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that was supposed to look at these issues. The Federal Trade Commission might in some ways, look at these issues, what does Washington have to say about this?
Hannah Denham: I have not heard anything from Washington on this front. I think this is something that's really still early to track. I've only been able to find out the current number of complaints in the 29 states, because I went to every single Attorney General in every state for months [chuckles], but this is hard to track. It's largely anecdotal up to this point. I think it'll take some time before federal regulators really take notice, but I think that is something consumers are hopeful of.
Tanzina Vega: Is there any last-minute advice for consumers who find themselves in that position? You said contact your Attorney General, any other pieces of advice or for businesses who want to charge these fees? How should they be doing it more transparently?
Hannah Denham: I think what consumers are asking of these businesses is to just disclose the fee, if they have one upfront. For restaurants, if that's on the menu or on a sign on the door. For dentist office, if they're calling for your appointment to let you know on the phone there's an extra fee. I think consumers, any advice I would give is to just ask questions. Maybe this is something you should ask of businesses that you are at patrons out moving forward.
Tanzina Vega: Hannah Denham is a National Business Reporter with The Washington Post. Hannah, thanks so much.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.