TINA.org's push to get the state to disclose vital consumer records
If you are interested in purchasing a product or service from a company based in Utah and want to research how other consumers have fared, you are going to be hobbled in your efforts.
Government officials refuse to release consumer complaints filed with state agencies or even confirm if they have received any complaints against a company.
I have been at this effort for more than three months, trying to get copies of any consumer complaints filed with the state’s Department of Commerce consumer division against WakeUpNow, a Utah-based multilevel marketing company that we have received complaints about. I was turned down twice by the Department of Commerce and again when TINA.org appealed to the State Records Committee earlier this month.
Utah contends that these records cannot be disclosed because they are considered “investigatory records;” that state laws bar it from disclosing the names of any individual or entity under investigation unless the identity has become a matter of public record in an enforcement proceeding; and that a business’s reputation could be harmed if consumers find out that other consumers have filed complaints with the state.
This stance is baffling and quite unusual.
My request under Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) was routine. As editor of TINA.org I often file Freedom of Information requests when investigating a company or to follow up on a complaint sent in by a reader. This is because it is vital to find out about the experiences other consumers have had with a company and their efforts to get state and federal officials to investigate it. Most states make these complaints available, with many even posting searchable databases on line.
The Federal Trade Commission, charged with consumer protection, also makes these complaints readily available, whether they are taking enforcement action against a company or not. In fact, I discovered through a Freedom of Information request to the FTC that there have been more than 160 complaints against WakeUpNow. But Utah, where the company is based, will not disclose complaints it has received to its own citizens.
Indeed, even if a company has 1,000 complaints against it, it is “irrelevant” for consumers to know, Assistant Attorney General Ché Arguello told the Records Committee in arguing that TINA.org was not entitled to any consumer complaints. The state maintains these records are only relevant if the state determines the business violated state laws and Utah takes action against it.
That’s a mighty big if.
Despite the position taken by the Records Committee, Utah officials can release these records now if they want to. There is plenty of authority in state statutes to allow for this.
First, there is nothing in Utah’s laws that deem that complaints are “investigatory records.” In fact, the Utah Consumer Sales Practices Act, cited by the state in its denial, specifically states its purpose is to “protect consumers from suppliers who commit deceptive and unconscionable sales practices.” By giving consumers access to the complaints, it protects consumers by enabling them to make informed decisions about whether to do business with a company.
Also, there is this section of Utah’s GRAMA statutes that trumps all: It states that a government agency, even if deeming a record protected, can still disclose them if “the interests favoring access are greater than or equal to the interest favoring restriction of access.”
Perfect, right? Because it is in the interest of consumers to know if companies in Utah have complaints against them and what action, if any, the state has taken. By keeping consumers in the dark about this, state agencies can act in secrecy, choosing whether to bring an action against a company or not without any oversight.
The danger of a public agency acting behind closed doors was specifically addressed by Utah’s own Supreme Court in a 1984 case addressing public records (which we think these are) in which it stated:
The court recognizes that it is the policy of this state that public records be kept open for public inspection to prevent secrecy in public affairs.
I trust that consumers know a complaint is just that, a complaint, whether it is voiced in an online consumer forum, a letter sent to a consumer group or filed with the state. And consumers should be able to view all of that information.
We will have our say before the Records Committee again next month, during an appeal of another request for consumer complaints that were filed against three e-cigarette companies that the state took action against because, wait for it, “state investigators received hundreds of consumer complaints from across the country.” And yet, neither TINA.org nor consumers, as it currently stands, can see these complaints that prompted the investigation even though the state fined and cited the companies and made the names of the company public in a press release. Huh? Perhaps if consumers had access to these complaints during all the months it took for the state to take enforcement action, they wouldn’t have become a victim to the companies’ schemes.
Let’s hope by December state officials have come to their senses. And if not, then the state should heed the advice of the Salt Lake City Tribune’s editorial board which wrote that the Utah legislatures should clarify the law and make sure Consumer Protection Division records are open to the public.
Patients seldom are told or get an apology when they are harmed during medical care, according to a new study based on results from ProPublica’s Patient Harm Questionnaire.
This story was co-published with NPR's Shots blog.
Patients who suffer injuries, infections or mistakes during medical care rarely get an acknowledgment or apology, researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine report.
The study was based on responses of 236 patients who completed ProPublica's Patient Harm Questionnaire during the one-year period ending in May 2013 and who agreed to share their data.
Results of the study, led by professor of surgery Marty Makary and conducted independently from ProPublica, were published online Nov. 13 by the Journal of Patient Safety. The study found:
• It was common for health care providers to withhold information about medical mistakes. Only 9 percent of patients said the medical facility voluntarily disclosed the harm.
• When officials did disclose harm it was often because they were forced to. Nine percent of respondents said the harm was only acknowledged under pressure.
• Apologies were infrequent. Only 11 percent of patients or their family members reported getting an apology from a provider.
• More than 30 percent reported paying bills related to the harm. The average cost:
Another study last year in the Journal of Patient Safety estimated that at least 210,000 U.S. hospital patients a year die from medical mistakes. Yet while the problem is widespread, Makary and his research team wrote, there is little research into how patients feel about experiencing medical harm.
Clinicians may see the need to be more open with patients but lack the "moral courage" to do it, researchers said. Patient advocates and providers should work together on how to best inform patients, and medical schools and training programs can introduce the needed skills, they said.
The authors cautioned that because their findings are from a self-selected sample of patients it is not possible to draw definitive conclusions about patient harm or disclosure.
As of today, more than 600 people have volunteered to complete ProPublica's Patient Harm Questionnaire, including participants in the Consumers Union Safe Patient Project, which shared the survey.
The questionnaire helps ProPublica's reporters find stories and trends. Only respondents who first consented to participate were included in Makary's research.
Help us investigate patient safety: Patients who have been harmed, or their loved ones, are invited to complete our questionnaire. Researchers interested in the data can email reporter Marshall Allen at email@example.com.
Moneylife Foundation's Samir Zaveri Railway Helpline, on behalf of thousands of local train commuters, felicitated Constable Azim K Shaikh from Thane Police, for preventing a catastrophic accident and disruption of railway service on 7th November
Moneylife Foundation's Samir Zaveri Railway Helpline on Saturday felicitated Constable Azim K Shaikh from Thane Police for preventing a catastrophic accident and disruption of railway service on 7 November 2014. After spotting a detached iron plate on the railway track near Parsik Tunnel, Constable Sheikh, using a red coloured bag rushed and stopped an upcoming local train in the nick of time.
After presenting a plaque on behalf of commuters of Mumbai, Samir Zaveri, who has made it his mission to ensure that railway accident victims get swift attention, so that many lives are saved during the first ‘golden hour’, said, "We salute Constable Azim K Shaikh for displaying rare courage and spontaneously responding to the dire situation, going beyond the call of duty, thereby averting a major disaster that has probably saved hundreds of lives and a massive disruption of the railways services."
Several prominent citizens and activists were present during the felicitation and lauded the bravery shown by Constable Shaikh. Some NGOs like Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) and Police Reforms Watch also sent an appreciation letter for Constable Shaikh. The appreciation letter sent by Maja Daruwala, Director of CHRI and Dolphy D’souza, Convenor for PRW was read out by Mr D’souza.
Indian Railways, especially the Mumbai suburban railway network does a phenomenal job in transporting over 75 lakh people back and forth every day in an extremely timely manner. However, everyday 25-30 rail commuters meet with an accident and 10-12 of them lose their lives. This highlights why a large organisation like Indian Railways, with enormous pressure to maintain timing and schedules needs strong additional support from citizens and brave hearts like Samir Zaveri and Constable Shaikh.
Keeping this in mind, Moneylife Foundation set up the Samir Zaveri Railway Helpline to help railway commuters in distress.
Earlier this year, the Samir Zaveri Railway Helpline sought urgent intervention from Mallikarjun Kharge, the then Railway Minister through former MP Milind Deora for reducing the gap between platforms and trains and for making available ambulances at all suburban railway stations.
Moneylife Foundation and Samir Zaveri Railway Helpline have formed a group in Facebook, Coalition for Safe Rail Travel-CSRT to help like-minded citizens and activists connect with each other.
Here is an appreciation and recommendation letter written by Julio Ribeiro, former Commissioner of Police for Mumbai to Sanjeev Dayal, DGP, Maharashtra...