A Toms River company profiled several times by Bamboozled for wrongly billing customers will pay more than $58,000 in fines and make sweeping changes to its business practices under a settlement agreement with the state Division of Consumer Affairs.
The settlement, obtained by Bamboozled, said Community Surgical Supply (CSS) must conduct and share with the state quarterly audits to ensure compliance with the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, change billing methods, agree to binding arbitration in cases of consumer complaints and pay restitution where warranted.
While the company denies any wrongdoing, it must also appoint a consumer liaison who will ensure “policies of CSS take into account the interests and needs of its consumers,’’ and maintain a full-time compliance offer who will make sure the company follows all laws, rules and regulations regarding its business.
“We’re not simply saying, `Enact these reforms and be well,’” said Thomas Calcagni, the acting director of Consumer Affairs. “All of this will be done under the watchful eye of the division and I can tick off the ways we’re going to be watching this company.’’
He said consumers can now expect that the terms of all transactions will be enforced.
“This settlement accomplishes that by mandating far-reaching business reforms and subjecting the company to extraordinary division oversight,’’ he said.
“While it has always been the intention of Community Surgical to deal with our customers in an honest and transparent way, we believe that new practices designed in conjunction with the Division of Consumer Affairs will make our customers’ experiences even better,’’ said company spokesman Glen Rochkind in an e-mail.
The company would not entertain questions about the specifics of the settlement.
What it means for customers
The settlement, which also says CSS must give consumers a grace period to return unused merchandise and develop written policies concerning the return of rentals, affects consumers like Rocco Capobianco—the sole customer of 25 complainants whose case was not resolved before the signing of the settlement.
The Little Egg Harbor man, 81, came home from rehab after a hospital stay in April 2009 to find a delivery truck waiting for him.
It was a wheelchair, delivered by CSS.
“I said I don’t want it,” Capobianco said he told the delivery guy. “He said, `Your doctor ordered it. I have to deliver it, and you have to take it. You can call the office and tell them to take it back.’”
Capobianco said he was incensed, but he gave up after arguing for a while with the driver.
Right away, he and his wife, Rosemarie, 77, called the company and requested the chair be picked up.
It took many phone calls and two months of time before the delivery truck came back.
When the chair was gone, the bills, for $1,130, started rolling in.
“The bills were coming in like crazy and I said, `What’s wrong with them? I insisted they pick it up, and then they started sending bills?’” Rocco Capobianco said. “I said I’m not paying for it. I didn’t want it and I never used it.’’
After some back and forth, the couple said CSS offered to settle the bill for $700.
“I’m not paying one cent,” Capobianco said, and he filed a complaint with Consumer Affairs.
Now with the settlement in place, binding arbitration will resolve the dispute.
More billing changes
CSS must also give customers 20 days notice of any outstanding balances before taking them to small claims court, the settlement said.
In August 2009, Bamboozled reported CSS had taken more than 500 customers—or the estates of deceased customers—to small claims court over billing disputes since 2007. Dozens of those customers told us they never received a current bill, a past due bill or any notification of monies owed until the small claims summons appeared in the mail. After our report, the company dropped dozens of pending cases and court records show no new filings since.
Bamboozled took the settlement news to Margaret Barbuty, the daughter of Elizabeth Schram, a one-time CSS customer whose estate was twice sued in small claims court over a wheelchair rental.
“It’s unfortunate that it took so much effort and persuasion for them to agree to do the right thing for their customers,’’ Barbuty said. “Hopefully this is a permanent shift in their customer service model and consumers caring for the sick and elderly will have one less thing to be concerned with.’’
Barbuty’s saga with the company continued even after those small claims cases were dropped and CSS agreed it overbilled, later returning payments to Medicare and Schram’s supplemental insurance company.
But unexpectedly, Barbuty received yet another bill in August 2010.
Bamboozled reviewed the bill: six monthly charges of $35 for a total of $210. The dates of service ranged from October 2009 to March 2010. Schram died in August 2008.
Barbuty said she called CSS two days later to ask about the new bill.
“It was pretty funny. The billing department started with `You’ve never returned the wheelchair.’ I then mentioned that I’d been sued by them twice, both cases were dropped and your article. She put me on hold at least four times in 8 minutes,’’ Barbuty said, noting she left a message for someone to return her call.
Later that day, she said she received a call from the company, which didn’t explain the reasons for the charges but told her to disregard the bill.
We called CSS back in August to learn more, and it said the charges were an error.
“Her case was previously completely closed. She should not have gotten any bill,’’ said Rochkind, the company spokesman, during an August interview.
He said in the course of reviewing the Schram case after Bamboozled’s questions, employees were going in and out of the company’s databases.
“Someone must have inadvertently flipped a switch and clicked on something, leaving the computer to believe the account was open,’’ Rochkind said. “The huge database, the system, still believes the wheelchair is still outstanding, and that’s what it was billing for.’’
Barbuty has since received in writing from the company that her mom’s case is closed, once and for all.
If you have a complaint, you can contact Consumer Affairs online at state.nj.us/lps/ca/comp.htm or call (973) 504-6200 or (800) 242-5846.