April 5, 2010

Consumers get new safeguards

By Susan M. Cover
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- Lawmakers passed several bills in recent weeks to help consumers, including protections against charges on free trial offers, a ban on health-benefit caps and a significant reduction in copying fees for birth and death certificates.

Attorney General Janet Mills praised lawmakers for the passage of L.D. 1541, a first-in-the nation law in response to hundreds of complaints from consumers who accepted a free trial offer and then were committed to monthly or annual credit-card charges.

The law requires sellers to confirm billing information directly with the consumers at the time the consumer accepts the free offer, according to Mills' office.

"Consumers have a right to know who is charging them and for how much," Mills said in a statement. "This bill will provide more transparency in free trial offers and will prevent consumers from being charged for services they do not need or want."

The measure was sponsored by Rep. Rob Hunt, D-Buxton.

In the area of health care, the Legislature passed another first-in-the-nation bill that prevents insurance companies from placing lifetime health benefit limits.

The measure, sponsored by House Majority Whip Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, will go into effect in Maine earlier than a similar limit contained in national health-care reform.

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye, R-Perry, sponsored a bill to reduce the copying fees for birth and death certificates. Last year, the fees increased from $15 to $60 per copy.

"It was a 400 percent increase," Raye said. "We put in General Fund money so we can strip those (higher) fees out."

Technically, Raye's bill was killed, but he worked with members of the Appropriations Committee to get the funding through the budget. That made it part of the budget that passed March 30.

Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, sponsored a bill that prohibits merchants from placing surcharges on debit-card purchases. Maine law already prohibited extra charges on credit cards, but the statute had not been updated to reflect debit cards, according to the House Majority Office.

Groups such as AARP Maine, Maine Equal Justice Partners and the Bureau of Banking supported the measure.

Steve Griffin, a lobbyist for AARP Maine, said the group was concerned about the possibility that different stores would tack on different fees.

"We like fees to be easy to see, easy to understand. And in this economy, we're not sure it's the time to be putting fees on things," he said.

The measure was opposed by the Maine Merchants Association, which argues that the law is unnecessary because those types of fees are already prohibited.

They felt a federal solution, which is pending in Washington, would be better for businesses.

"Maine did not need to weigh in," said Curtis Picard, executive director of the merchants association. "It needs to be resolved at the federal level."

Another bill sponsored by Rep. Sean Flaherty, D-Scarborough, will give consumers more information when they need to go to arbitration to resolve a dispute.

Starting in January 2011, those who conduct consumer arbitrations will be required to have a Web site to outline their fees, the types of disputes they have been involved in and if the consumer won the case. Also, they must disclose if lawyers were involved and the amount of the award given.

Flaherty said when he worked for the American Association for Justice, he dealt with mandatory binding arbitration cases.

He thinks binding arbitration, which is meant to prevents lawsuits, is often unfair to consumers. Many common contracts, such as cell phones and vehicle purchases, include a provision requiring binding arbitration.

"It's so difficult for a consumer if they have an issue that we need to make sure they are protected," he said.


Susan Cover -- 620-7015

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