Sick service for a nonexistent debt

31 August 2012 - 13:27 By Megan Power
The Power Report
Megan Power
Megan Power
Image: Sunday Times

Hospital lies to customer about listing him for money he does not even owe

At first glance reader Ernesto Furlong's e-mail about dodgy debt collectors was no different to the many others I get regularly.

But on closer reading, it demanded special attention.

Not only was this reader being chased for R700 that the service provider wasn't able to explain but it had lied, in writing, about listing him with the credit bureau.

This concerning behaviour did not came from some small-time backstreet debt collector but from the country's largest private hospital group, Netcare, which should have known better.

Under the Consumer Protection Act, this kind of behaviour is considered "unconscionable conduct" - morally unacceptable.

A supplier cannot use coercion, undue influence, pressure, duress, harassment, unfair tactics or any other similar conduct to demand or collect payment from a consumer.

In a letter to Furlong last month, Netcare said it had listed him with the credit bureau, which could have an adverse effect on future credit applications.

"In the event that you want your details removed ... you must settle the full outstanding balance ... Please govern yourself accordingly."

Furlong, who runs a tourism business with his wife, went to great lengths to resolve the matter before involving me. In a last ditch effort, he e-mailed Netcare three weeks ago, copying me, asking it to substantiate the amount claimed in connection with his wife's admission to Linksfield Hospital in February.

"I wish to put on record that the delay in resolving this matter rests entirely with you; we have repeatedly communicated with your company..." Furlong wrote.

"I also wish to put on record that the letter received from you clearly states 'we have added your details to the National Credit Bureau' although you now telephonically deny this, saying that it is just 'the final letter'. I think this is plain harassment.

"For this reason I am copying this correspondence to Megan Power at the Sunday Times; hopefully she will help me to solve this matter once and for all."

I e-mailed the legal collections department employee Furlong had addressed his letter to, pointing out that a supplier was legally bound to provide a consumer with a full breakdown and explanation of outstanding debt and that the letter lying about the listing was illegal.

I asked for details of hospital spokespeople who would be able to answer to the issues.

She responded, admitting that the company's final letter confirming listing didn't, in fact, mean a customer was, actually, listed. She couldn't explain further.

She also couldn't explain why no detailed invoice had been sent to the reader by the hospital but suggested Furlong should have asked his medical aid to explain the shortfall.

I said I regarded Netcare's conduct as illegal and suggested she ask the company lawyers about it.

A few hours later, I got a call from Linksfield Hospital manager Linda Bossert apologising, saying there had been a billing error and that Furlong was actually owed a refund of R1000! His wife had been incorrectly charged for a private ward.

After Furlong was refunded, he asked me to try "influence a change of tactics" at Netcare, which could help other potential victims.

Said Furlong: "Even if you do owe money, nobody deserves to be treated like that. I found the collections department unprofessional, bullying and aggressive; a very unpleasant experience," he said.

It took several weeks to get a response from Netcare on the misleading letter, but it was welcome news when it came. Netcare has since pulled the letters; no patients will be lied to in this way again.

Managing director Jacques du Plessis apologised for the "unacceptable error" of trying to collect funds that weren't owed - and for the letters sent to Furlong. He said the company was supportive of the act and had revised most of its forms, letters and paperwork.

"It is, however, an extensive task. While our debt collection letters are being reviewed we have not as yet effected all changes in that area of our business and again, apologise for this.

"We appreciate you bringing this matter to our attention as it has provided us with the opportunity to fast track the review of the correspondence used as part of our debt-collection process.

"Mr Furlong and other patients may rest assured that the issuing of these letters has been stopped with immediate effect until such time as they are revised," Du Plessis said.

Not that the company had any choice. The letters are dishonest and unethical; designed to induce fear.

They have no place in honest business.

That they were ever used - especially as standard debtor correspondence - suggests Netcare's moral compass is in urgent need of checking.

  • Consumers can contact the office of the Credit Ombud to lodge a dispute about accounts, debt counsellors or credit bureau matters on 0861662837 or www.creditombud.org.za. Complaints can also be lodged with the Council for Debt Collectors on 0128049808.

Sunday Smile

At vid Brands for its response to reader Lorraine Broom's complaint that its SkinSano medical grade lanolin which she uses for chapped lips felt "sticky". A replacement was couriered to her the next day and two more jars arrived in the post.

Sunday Snarl

At Sacab taxi company for sending me a driver who couldn't drive. He stalled repeatedly, skipped red lights, drove on the wrong side, nearly crashed, and got lost - in the dark. I eventually bailed at a garage. Still waiting for an apology from management.