Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

How to cure children of ‘nature-deficit disorder’

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted July 25, 2016, at 6:50 a.m.

Parents concerned that their youngsters are spending too much time in front of screens have a place to turn: the great outdoors.

The places where many Maine people feel most at home may offer the best antidote for what The New York Times called “the fully automated child.” Many of our children are or seem to be so disconnected from the natural world that they’ve been branded as sufferers of something called “nature-deficit disorder.”

That’s not a real medical condition. The man who coined the term, writer Richard Louv, contends that a strong connection with the natural world has all kinds of benefits, including mental sharpness, lower levels of obesity, boosting overall health and simply having fun. Louv writes in several books that getting ourselves into natural settings is critical to our healthy growth and development.

Many who have studied the erosion of recess in schools will argue that time spent outdoors in addition to classrooms offers a balanced education. In the book Balanced and Barefoot, Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, wrote that she had been seeing more and more young patients who could not tolerate wind in their faces, had poor balance or lack of coordination or who cried or got upset in unfamiliar situations.

Hanscom wrote that lots of movement is the key to countering those problems. “I discovered that movement through active free play — particularly in the outdoors — is absolutely the most beneficial gift we as parents, teachers and caregivers can bestow on our children …” (emphasis hers).

Louv and Hanscom have found that their messages resonate with people and groups across the country. Schools, civic groups and volunteers from numerous organizations have set up environmental education programs for young people of various ages. Summer camps are bustling with young people running headlong into nature, many for the first time.

Groups in many states have joined a coalition called “No Child Left Inside” or NCLI. The goal is to get kids outside, moving as they need to, interacting with nature as they learn about it and themselves.

Portland Water District is among the 35 Maine members of NCLI. The district’s Sarah Plummer coordinates educational offerings of the district. “Getting kids connected to nature from a young age is important,” she told me. “It fosters a love and respect of the environment.”

And some classroom teachers must be wondering, “Why not here?”

Recess times have been shortened to put more emphasis on academics. When children fidget, we tell them to keep still. Hanscom argues that when children are inactive, their brains tend to shut down. She wrote in The Washington Post that 20 minutes of activity is not enough. “They need hours of play outdoors in order to establish a healthy sensory system and to support higher-level attention and learning in the classroom.”

As consumers, the ways we use our time may be among the most important decisions we make. Helping young people to put their time to its best use might be the best education we can offer.

“In order for children to learn, they need to be able to pay attention,” Plummer wrote in The Washington Post. “In order to pay attention, we need to let them move.”

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Volkswagen agrees to settle on charges it misled consumers about their ‘Clean Diesel’ technology

PRESS RELEASE

June 30, 2016

AUGUSTA – Attorney General Janet T. Mills today announced a settlement requiring Volkswagen to pay more than $570 million to states for violating state laws prohibiting unfair or deceptive trade practices by marketing, selling and leasing diesel vehicles equipped with illegal and undisclosed defeat device software. The settlement also establishes an environmental mitigation fund of $2.7 billion. This agreement is part of a series of state and federal settlements that will provide cash payments to affected consumers, require Volkswagen to buy back or modify certain VW and Audi 2.0-liter diesel vehicles, and prohibit Volkswagen from engaging in future unfair or deceptive acts and practices in its dealings with consumers and regulators.

These coordinated settlements resolve consumer protection claims raised by a multistate coalition of State Attorneys General joined by 43 states and jurisdictions against Volkswagen AG, Audi AG, and Volkswagen Group of America, Inc., Porsche AG and Porsche Cars, North America, Inc. – collectively referred to as Volkswagen. They also resolve actions against Volkswagen brought by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), California and car owners in private class action suits.

“Volkswagen groomed an image to lead customers to believe they were making a purchase that was environmentally sound,” said Attorney General Mills. “It turns out their ‘clean diesel’ technology was anything but. Maine consumers were particularly impressed with this marketing, as demonstrated by data showing Maine had among the highest per capita VW ownership in the country. These settlements show that we will not tolerate this kind of manipulation in the market place.”

The investigation of the attorneys general confirmed that Volkswagen sold more than 570,000 2.0- and 3.0-liter diesel vehicles in the United States equipped with “defeat device” software intended to circumvent applicable emissions standards for certain air pollutants, and actively concealed the existence of the defeat device from regulators and the public. There were 3,982 affected vehicles sold in Maine. Volkswagen made false statements to consumers in their marketing and advertising, misrepresenting the cars as environmentally friendly or “green” and that the cars were compliant with federal and state emissions standards, when, in fact, Volkswagen knew the vehicles emitted harmful oxides of nitrogen (NOx) at rates many times higher than the law permitted.

Under the settlements, Volkswagen is required to implement a restitution and recall program for more than 475,000 owners and lessees of 2.0-liter diesel vehicles, of the model year 2009 through 2015 listed in the chart below at a maximum cost of just over $10 billion. This includes 3,982 vehicles in Maine.

Once the consumer program is approved by the court, affected Volkswagen owners will receive restitution payment of at least $5,100 and a choice between:

• A buy back of the vehicle (based on pre-scandal NADA value); or • A modification to reduce NOx emissions provided that Volkswagen can develop a modification acceptable to regulators. Owners will still be eligible to choose a buyback in the event regulators do not approve a fix. Owners who choose the modification option would also receive an Extended Emission Warranty; and a Lemon Law-type remedy to protect against the possibility that the modification causes subsequent problems.

The consumer program also provides benefits and restitution for lessees (restitution and a no-penalty lease termination option) and sellers after September 18, 2015 when the emissions-cheating scandal was disclosed (50 percent of the restitution available to owners). Additional components of today’s settlements include:

• Environmental Mitigation Fund: Volkswagen will pay $2.7 billion into a trust to support environmental programs throughout the country to reduce emissions of NOx. This fund, also subject to court approval, is intended to mitigate the total, lifetime excess NOx emissions from the 2.0-liter diesel vehicles identified below. Under the terms of the mitigation trust, Maine is eligible to receive approximately $20 million to fund mitigation projects to be determined by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

• Additional Payment to the States: In addition to consumer restitution, Volkswagen will pay to the states more than $1,000 per car for repeated violations of state consumer protection laws, amounting to $570 million nationwide. This amount includes $3,651,270 for affected vehicles Volkswagen sold and leased in Maine.

• Zero Emission Vehicles: Volkswagen has committed to investing $2 billion over the next 10 years for the development of non-polluting cars, or Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEV), and supporting infrastructure.

• Preservation of Environmental Claims: Today’s settlement by state attorneys general preserves all claims under state environmental laws, and Maine maintains the right to seek additional penalties from Volkswagen for its violations of environmental and emissions laws and regulations.

Volkswagen will also pay $20 million to the National Association of Attorneys General to establish a fund that state attorneys general can utilize for future training and initiatives, including investigations concerning emissions violations, automobile compliance, and consumer protection.

The full details of the consumer program will be available online at VWCourtSettlement.com and www.ftc.gov/VWSettlement.

Click to see if your vehicle is part of the settlement

Have regulators become deadly slow with tainted food alerts?

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted June 20, 2016, at 7:44 a.m.

Consumers are “at risk of injury or death.” That’s the kind of headline you’d expect to see in tabloids and on the talking head interview shows.

However, the above quote came from investigators for the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They were referring not just to the commercially produced foods that made people sick but also to the slow pace of recalling tainted foods.

Those recalls are supposed to be handled by the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA. But the investigators found that, even after foods had been determined to pose health hazards, in some cases the agency was slow to force recalls.

Auditors had looked at 30 voluntary recalls from October 2012 to May 2015. They issued what’s termed a “rare alert” about two mandated recalls, saying “consumers remained at risk of illness or death for several weeks after FDA knew of potentially hazardous food.”

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, or FSMA, gave the FDA the power to force companies to recall tainted products; it has used that power only twice, both times in 2013.

Recalls of salmonella-tainted pet food and adulterated dietary supplements came months after FDA learned of the problems.

Investigators also were troubled by two voluntary recalls. The first case occurred in 2014, when salmonella turned up in nut butter. The investigators say 165 days passed from the time the problem surfaced to the date the manufacturer issued a recall. There were 14 illnesses reported in 11 states.

Later that year, a listeria outbreak was traced to cheese products. The alert said it took 81 days to complete a series of recalls; at least nine people became ill.

George Nedder, who led the audit, was blunt. “I think the time that these recalls took were problematic, absolutely.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, has taken FDA to task over all voluntary recalls. Senior food safety attorney David Plunkett called on FDA to use the authority in FSMA to issue recalls, instead of letting manufacturers issue recalls voluntarily. Plunkett said,

“Unfortunately, based on the agency’s actions to date, the FDA hasn’t done much to implement those recall provisions and doesn’t appear to take informing consumers much more seriously [than some manufacturers] did,” he said.

The FDA fired off a news release following the rare alert. It stated that while lengthy delays happen in a minority of cases, such delays are still “unacceptable.” The release said the FDA is taking “concrete steps” to speed the pace of recalls.

“These steps include the establishment of a rapid-response team made up of agency leaders and the introduction of new technologies to make the process even swifter,” it stated.

The release did not indicate how those new technologies will operate.

In an agency blog, the FDA’s Dr. Stephen Ostroff and Howard Sklamberg wrote that deadlines are needed, but they won’t all necessarily be short. “The time needed to collect evidence can vary, but to request a recall without evidence risks recalling the wrong product and leaving consumers vulnerable to contaminated food that is still on the market,” they wrote.

Leaving contaminated food on store shelves is what concerned the auditors in the first place. We’re anxious to see FDA’s future recall record. See our blog for links to FDA recall information.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Editor’s note: Consumer Forum will not be published the week of June 26. It will return the week of July 3.

Get ready now for an active hurricane season

CONSUMER FORUM

By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT
Posted May 23, 2016, at 6:15 a.m.

Click image for info

If you missed Hurricane Preparedness Week (the third week in May), it’s not too late to take precautions that could save lives and/or property. The hurricane season begins officially on June 1 but serious storms can happen any time.

In Maine, consumers often think that the end of severe winter weather means we can all relax. In fact, the same diligence we practice in keeping ahead of ice and snow serves us well when severe storms strike.

Several forecasters are predicting the most active hurricane season since 2012, with 14 named storms, eight hurricanes and three major hurricanes likely.

There’s no guarantee that all of those storms will hit the United States. But many of us can recall a hurricane that has visited Maine. And most of us would agree, it’s better to be prepared than to be unprepared.

Emergency officials remind us that updating our insurance coverage is important. Whether you own or rent, it’s worth meeting with your insurance agent before hurricane season really ramps up.

Maine’s Bureau of Insurance has a number of resources to help both homeowners and renters prepare. Call the bureau, 1-800-300-5000 toll-free in Maine, or visit its website, www.maine.gov/pfr/insurance/consumer/brochures.htm#homeowners, for a home inventory checklist, insurance guide for natural disasters, advice on making claims following storms and more.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners website has more information at www.naic.org/index_consumer.htm.

Most homeowners’ and renters’ insurances do not cover flood damage. Flood insurance must be purchased separately, if you live in a floodplain where you need coverage. There also is a waiting period before it takes effect.

Contact the National Flood Insurance Program by phone at 1-800-427-2419 or online at www.floodsmart.gov for detailed information.

Consumers should put together emergency supplies. Nonperishable food, a nonelectric can opener, cooking utensils, drinking water, flashlights with good batteries and a battery-powered radio are basics. Extra clothing, blankets and a well-stocked first aid kit are also needed items.

Imagine what the loss of important papers in a storm could mean. Consider keeping copies at home and original documents in a safe deposit box or other secure storage site. If you keep your only copies of insurance policies at home, be sure you can get them in a hurry if you have to leave.

Get your home ready by keeping trees trimmed to minimize danger from broken branches. Shop ahead for materials to cover windows; they may be hard to find a day or two before a big storm.

If a hurricane approaches, put vehicles in garages or other secure places. Bring loose items inside and secure all doors; garage doors are often the most subject to damage. Good preparations should help to settle an insurance claim more quickly.

After a major storm, beware of “deals,” especially involving used vehicles. Hidden flood damage that’s not revealed in a private sale might cause big headaches.

Damp goods sold by salvage specialists may or may not be bargains; shop carefully.

If you’re vacationing in an area that’s been hit by a hurricane in the past, pay attention to weather forecasts. Be ready to alter your travel plans if there’s danger of a serious storm. Find out if there are evacuation routes you should know about and how people are alerted about using them.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Diagnosing the value of blanket medical tests

CONSUMER FORUM

 By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT

Posted May 16, 2016, at 6:41 a.m.

On May 17 and 18, a business called Life Line Screening will visit the Bangor area.

The firm offers a package of five screenings it says can help consumers avoid cardiovascular disease. The screenings are intended to detect plaque buildup in carotid arteries, abdominal aortic aneurysms and other signs of cardiovascular irregularities.

Life Line Screening offers the five screenings for $149, cash or credit cards accepted. The business does not accept Medicare and does not do private insurance billings.

The brochure advertising the screenings recently in the Bangor Daily News had this statement regarding cancellations: “A full refund is issued if you call to cancel at least 2 days prior to your appointment. If less than 2 days’ notice is given, we will issue a Gift Card for the full amount to be used by you, or anyone you choose, to purchase future screening services.”

The Maine Medical Association has taken a close look at the screenings offered by Life Line Screening during prior visits. Maine Medical Association Executive Vice President Gordon Smith told me that the company does business in conjunction with a physician who is licensed in Maine (although that doctor need not live here).

Smith also said he knows of no problem with the technology of the screenings. He said the tests may offer some consumers peace of mind, should their results come back negative.

Life Line Screening says it will report results within 21 days; it urges those who’ve been screened to take the results to their family doctors for any follow-up tests or other procedures.

Smith and others in the medical community contend that consultation with the family physician should take place before the screening, to make sure the tests are really needed.

Smith said physicians are concerned about “mass testing,” screenings that are offered without regard to people’s medical histories or individual situations. Smith said he worried about “tests that end up with more false positives than real positives, and patients receiving treatment that’s at best unnecessary and at worst harmful.”

Screenings can show irregularities that may or may not be harmful to someone’s health.

Follow-up testing — especially among older patients — can create different levels of risk depending on the patient’s status; the worry and uncertainty that go along with further testing take a toll as well.

Smith told me that Life Line Screening does not accept Medicare because Medicare doesn’t pay for the screenings the firm offers. Smith said Medicare’s reasoning appears to be that the screenings “haven’t been identified as being valuable screening tests for patients, generally.” Testing an individual based on a physician’s advice is one thing; Smith said random testing usually accomplishes very little.

Many consumer advocates sound off about individual choice, and informed choice is great. Smith advises people who don’t have a family physician to do their own research online (researchers at your local library can help).

In the 2007 book “Overtreated,” Shannon Brownlee contended that a lot of medical care is unnecessary and therefore wastes resources better spent on those who need care. Our advice is to be proactive but, in making any serious health decision, consult your physician first.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

How to ensure your life insurance benefit will be paid

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted April 25, 2016, at 8:45 a.m.

Click image to watch segment

The TV news magazine “60 Minutes” aired a report April 17 that some in the insurance industry must have hoped they’d never see.

The segment concerned settlements by 25 companies to date of allegations that they had improperly withheld benefits from the families of people with life insurance who had died.

Unless people named in the policies filed claims directly, the various insurance companies failed to notify beneficiaries that they were owed benefits. Since in many cases people did not know they had been named in those policies, they never filed claims.

The “60 Minutes” report said some companies simply canceled policies once they became aware that the insured person had died; the companies then kept the death benefit.

Other companies reportedly dipped into the accumulated funds of the insured following their deaths, paying premiums to extend existing policies. Kevin McCarty, Florida’s insurance commissioner, said in the “60 Minutes” piece the practice was “tantamount to stealing.”

McCarty led a task force that investigated the industry. He said insurance companies often don’t notify beneficiaries when they know that a policyholder has died.

“I’m here to say that you have a responsibility to investigate a claim if you know someone has died,” McCarty said.

The companies that have settled complaints admitted no wrongdoing but paid more than $7.5 billion to compensate beneficiaries for money the companies owed them.

The settlements cover roughly 75 percent of the industry, and more settlements are likely.

Maine has signed onto the settlements reached so far and shared in the compensation; the civil penalties attached to those settlements added more than $708,000 to Maine’s General Fund.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners has been trying to hammer out a model law it’s calling the Unclaimed Life Insurance and Annuities Model Act. A five-page draft statute has been the subject of conference calls since last November; eventually, the association hopes to have it ready for states to enact.

Not all insurance companies like those efforts. Kemper Corp. is among the 35 insurance companies that have not entered into settlements. In fact, Kemper was named by “60 Minutes” as leading the opposition to the association’s model law efforts.

That prompted Sen. Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, where Kemper is based, to call on Kemper “to disavow the practice of withholding life insurance payouts to beneficiaries that do not directly file claims with the insurance company.”

Consumer Forum reached out to Kemper, which agreed with many points about other companies’ behavior. But Kemper said in a statement that “the story did a poor job of explaining that Kemper did not engage in those practices.”

The statement continued: “Because we behaved appropriately, we won’t agree to be punished as if we were one of the companies that knowingly failed to pay claims.”

Kemper’s homepage, kemper.com, lists toll-free numbers for several companies and links to 14 states that offer help in finding lost policies.

Maine is in the process of setting up a “lost policy locator service.” You can call Maine’s Bureau of Insurance at 1-800-300-5000 for help, but realize there may not be simple answers. Relatives aren’t always told they’ve been named beneficiaries. Insurance companies are bought and sold and may change names. So, do as much research as you can.

The Insurance Information Institute lists 12 steps for finding lost life insurance documents at iii.org/article/how-can-i-locate-lost-life-insurance-policy.

You can check online at unclaimed.org and search individual states for unclaimed property, including insurance benefits. You can do a multistate search for unclaimed property at missingmoney.com.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Renting a car can be more dangerous than you think

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted April 04, 2016, at 10:31 a.m.

When renting a car, savvy consumers start the vehicle and let the air conditioning run while they check it over. Even if you’re planning a spring vacation in a normally cool place, it’s worth knowing at the outset that the AC works if you need it.

That’s just one part of a thorough inspection you should give that vehicle before renting. An unnoticed dent or ding at the outset might be found upon return, and you could be charged for damage you did not do.

Other things to do before you rent include the following:

— Have all ID with you, including your driver’s license and the credit card you used to reserve the vehicle.

— Read the credit card documentation to see if it includes insurance. If in doubt, pay for the additional insurance — instead of risking a whopping bill if you’re in a crash.

— Read the fine print. Tracking devices can prove you were speeding, incurred fees for driving out of state or exceeded mileage limits.

— Check that the keys open the trunk — and gas cap, if it’s the locking kind. Make sure there’s a jack, spare tire and lug wrench. Adjust all the mirrors and ask for another vehicle if a mirror is missing.

— Look for bugs, mud or debris on the windshield. If you find any, check under the seats for crawling things. You don’t want to share your ride with bugs.

Most consumer advocates advise against renting at an airport. You’ll generally pay higher rates than at nearby rental sites. If you’re just married and under age 25, make sure you can rent legally; otherwise you might spend your honeymoon at your destination airport.

Insurance coverage can be complicated and costly. Options at the rental counter could add up to more than $40 per day, equal to or greater than the cost of the rental itself.

Know what you have for coverage. Angie’s List found in a poll that 22 percent of respondents did not know if their auto insurance or credit card provided liability and collision coverage on a rental car.

Ask about a collision damage waiver, sometimes called a loss damage waiver. It holds the renter harmless if a rental vehicle is damaged or stolen. In most cases, the waiver will pay for the time the vehicle is out of service while it’s being repaired. The waiver will likely not apply if the damage was because of gross negligence, as in drunken driving.

Consumer Reports had some tips a couple of years back at consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2014/01/how-to-save-on-car-rentals/index.htm.

In summary, Consumer Reports recommended shopping early, shopping around and declining the “extras.” All consumer advocates agree you should pay for your rental by credit card, in case you need to dispute something. And return the car full of gas or you’ll likely pay high prices to have the rental agency fill the tank.

We’ve written before about recalls, and the rental industry is dealing with a new law requiring that rental cars be taken out of service after receiving a recall notice. The law takes effect June 1 and applies to fleets larger than 35 vehicles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lets you search recalls by vehicle identification number, or VIN, at safercar.gov.

Visit the Consumer Affairs website at consumeraffairs.com/travel/car_rental.html for comparisons of 10 rental companies, including customer reviews.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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