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Reader’s Watchdog: Iowa consumer chief says state will examine Aftermath practices

June 13, 2013

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http://www.desmoinesregister.com/article/20130418/NEWS/304180110/Reader-s-Watchdog-Iowa-consumer-chief-says-state-will-examine-Aftermath-practices

 

State officials are warning first-responders not to refer Iowans to specific companies specializing in crime scene and suicide clean-up following a Des Moines Register Reader’s Watchdog report.

The report published Sunday questioned why police, sheriff’s deputies and medical examiners were referring families to Illinois-based Aftermath Inc. — and has prompted an investigation by Iowa’s Attorney General into the company’s contracts with Iowa families.

The company has been the subject of consumer complaints in Iowa and at least 11 other states because of staggering charges and questionable business practices.

Bill Brauch, the head of the Consumer Protection Division within the Attorney General’s office, urged Iowans to contact his office if they or their insurers have disputed past charges from the company.

“We are definitely looking into this,” he said.

Aftermath spokesperson Laura McGowan told the Register the company will work with any attorney general who wants to investigate the company’s business practices.

More representatives from sheriffs groups, county medical examiners and police acknowledged to The Des Moines Register this week they have referred Iowa families to Aftermath Services, largely because of its extensive direct marketing to the agencies and in law-enforcement seminars.

Sunday’s column featured a complaint from Cynthia Holtgrewe of Bellevue, Neb., following her grandson’s suicide in Fort Dodge. She said Aftermath tried to charge $44,000 for a day’s work until family members ejected workers from the home and an insurance agent intervened, she said.

Dr. Dan Cole, an officer of the Iowa Association of County Medical Examiners, said officials with the State Medical Examiner’s Office warned him last week — after a Reader’s Watchdog inquiry — that medical examiners should not refer customers to specific biohazard companies.

Cole said that until he read the column in the Register, he had no idea how much Aftermath Inc. charged the Fort Dodge family after he referred them to the company.

A past president and the current treasurer of the medical examiners’ association, Cole said he plans to take action in May to try to assure Aftermath is no longer a vendor at the state medical examiners’ annual meeting.

“I went to my office over the weekend and destroyed all the promotional materials the company sent,” he said. “From now on in these kinds of cases, I will tell people to call their insurance companies.”

Others in the biohazard business told me this week they have reviewed even higher bills from Aftermath for insurance adjustors — including one for $82,800 last year in Muscatine.

Dale Cillian of BioPro, a Phoenix, Ariz., business owner who was an expert witness in a Texas lawsuit involving Aftermath, said the Muscatine case involving a body left unattended was the highest he’d ever reviewed.

“I told then our charges would have been $15,000 to $20,000, but closer to the lower (estimate),” he said.

Washington County Sheriff Jerry Dunbar, president of the Iowa State Sheriffs & Deputies Association, said he plans to discuss Aftermath next week at that association’s meeting.

Dunbar said that in the past he has told his own deputies to hand out the company’s cards, but he was unaware so many consumer complaints had been made to attorneys general, the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission. He said he has since learned his department received a complaint about the company’s pricing.

Brauch also said his staff would explore posting online the names of reputable companies that do suicide and homicide cleanup to provide the resource for first-responders.

“Check around and always compare,” he warned. “If you get only one name, don’t rely on that.”

Greg Heath, a Waterloo landlord, and Amy Leonard, a West Des Moines administrative assistant, said they will be among those filing complaints with Brauch’s division.

In February, Heath said, a Waterloo police officer handed him the company’s card after a man committed suicide in one of his family’s apartments. He said he kicked workers out after an estimate on the biohazard cleanup shot from a low bid of $1,395 to $18,000.

He said Aftermath workers obtained signatures on new contracts from a tenant and occasional handyman in the building who had no authority to sign them, even though the company had his phone numbers.

He said he’s since learned two other families in the area have balked at high charges from the company.

“To me, it’s a legal liability problem for the city,” he said. “Why are police officers referring business to this company? These guys are predators.”

Leonard said she called and complained to Crawford County’s medical examiner after he referred her to Aftermath. The bill she received from the company was more than $80,000.

Leonard said her father passed away on his home in Denison, and Aftermath officials told her there would be extensive biohazard cleanup. The bill worked out to be about $10,000 a day — $17,000 of which she paid out-of-pocket because it was not covered by insurance.

Leonard said workers did do a good job of cleaning up her father’s extremely cluttered home, and they did have to do some structural work, but the costs were excessive, according to other experts.

“If you’ve never been through anything like that, you don’t know you should be calling people and getting different quotes.”

Anne Loomis, a Marion attorney, welcomed the inquiry into the company. She represented the executor of the estate of an elderly woman who died of a heart attack in her rural Marion home in 2009.

The company, Loomis said, tried to charge more than $50,000 for the cleanup and put a mechanic’s lien on the woman’s home. Loomis sued Aftermath attorney Patricia Blachinsky for filing a frivolous pleading and the insurance company eventually reached a settlement for $20,000, Loomis said.

McGowan, the Aftermath spokeswoman, defended the company by saying it would be “thrilled” if it didn’t have to follow OSHA and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations that guide how workers perform the difficult work. However, she said, the company follows federal rules because “the safety of employees as well as the customers is always the first thing we care about.”

McGowan said lots of companies “hang up a shingle” and say they specialize in biohazard clean-up.

“If everybody in the industry was held to the same standards we are, we would not be having this conversation,” she said.

She also said the company is not surprised insurance companies would contest covering certain expenses.

However, she said, the vast majority of individuals incur no more than their insurance deductible as costs. “And the vast majority of insurers we work with, we have great relationships with.”

The company’s promotional materials have offered competitors up to $750 for job referrals and other promotions.

But McGowan said last week Aftermath does not pay government workers who send biohazard work their way.

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