ICFA Part of Symposium on Deathcare as Consumer Issue
by Robert M. Fells, Esq., General Counsel
On May 24, the North American Cemetery Regulators Association (NCRA), the AARP and the Consumer Federation of America combined their sponsorships to hold the First National Symposium on Deathcare as a Consumer Issue at AARP headquarters in Washington, D.C.
This event was the third in a historic trilogy of public meetings of consumer groups, industry trade associations and government agencies held within six months. The first two meetings occurred at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Funeral Rule workshop conference in November 1999 (see the January Washington Report) and the Senate Special Committee on Aging hearings in April (see the April/May Washington Report). Many of the same individuals represented the various organizations at all three meetings, but the symposium provided the participants with an opportunity to discuss issues out of the glare of television lights and cameras and without court reporters transcribing their statements.
Three panels made presentations: an industry panel consisting of representatives from the ICFA, NFDA, CANA, the Monument Builders of North America and the National Casket Retailers Association; a consumer panel with staff from AARP, FAMSA/Funeral Consumers Alliance, NCRA and the National Cooperative Business Alliance; and a panel of government and regulatory agencies from the FTC, NCRA, the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators and the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. The symposium was organized as "a meaningful forum for sharing information about consumer education, consumer protection and the deathcare industry" rather than as a confrontational airing of complaints that characterized the first two meetings. Attendance was by invitation only to health care, hospice, nursing home and related agencies.
The ICFA was represented by Past President Robert A. Gordon Sr, CCFE, Eternal Hills Memorial Gardens and Funeral Home, Klamath Falls, Oregon, who is chairman of the Inter-Allied Committee and also chairs the Certification Board. Gordon gave a strong endorsement of prefunding prearrangements. "Planning to use insurance or savings to pay funeral and burial expenses at the time of need may sound like a good idea," Gordon observed, "but in many cases that money is used to pay medical bills resulting from the final illness." He also discussed the various ICFA Programs for assisting and educating consumers, including handouts that were distributed to attendees. Also participating from the ICFA were Past President Robert "Ted" Nuckolls, CCE; General Counsel Bob Fells; and ICFM Managing Editor Susan Loving.
CANA Executive Director Jack Springer noted that the average wedding costs $17,000 and the average car $22,000. By comparison, Springer noted, funerals are significantly less expensive. He observed that the rise in the cremation rate stems from the fact that cremation gives people more time for planning a meaningful service and memorialization. "People aren't necessarily trying to spend less money," Springer said, "they simply want to spend meaningful money." He pointed out that the cremation rate has increased from 12 percent 18 years ago to about 25 percent today.
Iowa regulator Dennis N. Britson, who serves as executive director of NCRA, provided an overview of his association's activities, including the development of model policy statements. He noted that cemeteries and funeral homes have traditionally been regulated through separate statutes and regulatory agencies but this approach may be changing. Maryland Office of Cemetery Oversight Director Steven V. Sklar discussed his newly formed agency and the fact that many complaints are resolved by a simple exchange of phone calls. FTC attorney Alan Hile outlined the ongoing Funeral Rule review proceedings, and Lauren Fuller, chief investigative counsel with the Senate Aging Committee, reviewed the recent hearings and possible follow-up.
Almost all of the participants respected the "no accusations" theme of the meeting and focused on the issues that consumers and their families need to consider when making funeral and burial arrangements. As a result, the symposium provided attendees with some constructive networking opportunities to informally discuss issues of mutual concern. A second symposium is anticipated for sometime in the spring of 2001 and the ICFA has indicated its willingness to participate.