Fu­neral homes may start list­ing prices on­line

Fed­eral rule im­ple­mented in 1984 doesn’t re­quire dis­clo­sure on web­site

The Buffalo News - - BUSINESS - By Ann Car­rns

Shop­pers rou­tinely use the in­ter­net to com­pare prices, whether for ap­pli­ances, cars or hotel rooms. But on­line pric­ing re­mains scant for fu­neral ser­vices, putting be­reaved and vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple at a fi­nan­cial dis­ad­van­tage be­cause they’re un­likely to hag­gle over costs.

Con­sumer ad­vo­cates are hop­ing that may fi­nally change be­cause fed­eral reg­u­la­tors are sched­uled to take a fresh look this year at a rule that gov­erns how fu­neral homes share in­for­ma­tion with the pub­lic. Ad­vo­cates are en­cour­ag­ing an up­date to bring the rule into the dig­i­tal age, by re­quir­ing fu­neral homes to post de­tailed prices on­line.

“We are build­ing a con­sumer coali­tion” to pro­mote the change, said Steve Brobeck, se­nior fel­low with the Con­sumer Fed­er­a­tion of Amer­ica.

The fed­er­a­tion and al­lies like the Fu­neral Con­sumers Al­liance, a non­profit group that pro­motes price trans­parency, ar­gue that the cur­rent rule is woe­fully in­ad­e­quate for the in­ter­net era. The Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion’s Fu­neral Rule re­quires fu­neral homes to pro­vide prices to con­sumers seek­ing them over the phone and to give an item­ized price list to any­one re­quest­ing one in per­son. But the rule, which first took ef­fect in 1984, when the in­ter­net was in its in­fancy, does not re­quire on­line dis­clo­sure of prices.

The typ­i­cal cost of a tra­di­tional fu­neral, in­clud­ing view­ing of the body and burial, was about $7,400 in 2017, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Fu­neral Di­rec­tors As­so­ci­a­tion, a trade group. A fu­neral with cre­ma­tion, which is in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar, was about $6,300. But costs vary widely, even within the same mar­ket.

Scott Gil­li­gan, gen­eral coun­sel with the fu­neral di­rec­tors as­so­ci­a­tion, said about 20 per­cent of its mem­bers – gen­er­ally those in larger, com­pet­i­tive mar­kets – posted prices on­line, but the as­so­ci­a­tion has not seen ma­jor de­mand for it from con­sumers. The group’s re­search, he said, shows that peo­ple choose a fu­neral home mainly be­cause of fac­tors like a re­la­tion­ship with a par­tic­u­lar fu­neral direc­tor or a home’s lo­ca­tion, with price a less im­por­tant cri­te­rion. There are about 22,000 fu­neral homes in the United States, and most are fam­ily owned, he said.

The Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion typ­i­cally strives to re-eval­u­ate rules ev­ery 10 years, said Patti Poss, an at­tor­ney in the com­mis­sion’s con­sumer pro­tec­tion bureau. The last re­view of the fu­neral rule ended in 2008, when, ac­cord­ing to the Fed­eral Reg­is­ter, the com­mis­sion de­clined to adopt any changes.

The 10-year re­view time

line isn’t man­dated, how­ever, and the com­mis­sion may ad­just it, Poss said. The five­mem­ber com­mis­sion, whose mem­bers were all ap­pointed last year, has a full plate, in­clud­ing an in­quiry into telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions pri­vacy.

Still, a re­view of the fu­neral rule in 2019 has been sched­uled for sev­eral years, Poss said, and is “sup­posed to hap­pen some­time this year.” She was un­able to pro­vide a date when the as­sess­ment might start, but said it would be an­nounced on the com­mis­sion’s web­site and in the Fed­eral Reg­is­ter.

The com­mis­sion typ­i­cally seeks pub­lic com­ments to help de­ter­mine if a rule re­mains rel­e­vant, and whether any changes are war­ranted. One fac­tor it con­sid­ers, Poss noted, is any ef­fect of tech­no­log­i­cal changes.

Joshua Slocum, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Fu­neral Con­sumers Al­liance, said the rule sorely needed up­dat­ing. The al­liance, along with the con­sumer fed­er­a­tion, un­suc­cess­fully pe­ti­tioned the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion in 2016 to speed up its re­view.

Slocum said post­ing prices on­line would make en­force­ment of the rule far eas­ier, since reg­u­la­tors are able to visit just a small frac­tion of the coun­try’s fu­neral homes to check com­pli­ance.

The com­mis­sion en­forces the fu­neral rule, in part, with un­der­cover in­spec­tions of fu­neral homes. It re­ported last year that nearly a quar­ter of 134 homes in a dozen states vis­ited in 2017 had failed to com­ply with fed­eral price dis­clo­sure rules.

An anal­y­sis of 200 fu­neral homes last year by the Fu­neral Con­sumers Al­liance found just 16 per­cent with web­sites in­cluded their full price lists on­line, although about a fourth posted some in­for­ma­tion, such as pack­aged ser­vices.

More re­cently, re­search by the al­liance and other groups found that on­line pric­ing dis­clo­sure was spotty even in Cal­i­for­nia, the only state that re­quires fu­neral homes with web­sites to in­clude pric­ing in­for­ma­tion on­line or to list ser­vices and note that prices are avail­able upon re­quest.

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