Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The dead weight of competition


When you see an industry association lobbying for regulation of its activity you can be sure of one thing: the real aim is to improve profitability by reducing competition. And so it is this week that the nation’s undertakers appear to be embarking on a campaign to keep the cost of dying high by calling on governments to regulate low cost operators out of business. Not that the expensive burial merchants are putting their case quite in those terms. The lobbying campaign which surfaced this week disguises the motives behind a veneer of a concern for the public good.
Hence in the Brisbane Sunday Mail at the weekend the pitch by Australian Funeral Directors Association president Rowan Steer was all about how difficult it was relatives to accurately assess a company’s credentials without there being an accreditation process. I mean, heaven forbid, left to their own devices some people might even choose the cheapest option for getting daddy’s body burned! That was exactly the point made by Doris Zagdanski, general manager of InvoCare Queensland, the state’s biggest funeral group, when she called for tighter regulation of the industry.
Without a scrutiny of scrutiny of private mortuaries operated by funeral companies “they can operate out of their lounge room and have a very nice website,” she told the paper with obvious horror. The result was some funeral directors offering funeral packages for about $3000, compared with an average $5000 for a cremation and $8500 for a burial, including the cemetery costs.
The attempt to get regulations in place to keep prices up has been going on for some years in Queensland. In the very finest of lobbying traditions the industry obtained an “independent” third-party endorsement for its views in the form of a Queensland University of Technology report prepared for the Queensland Funeral Industry Regulation working party in 2006. The report recommended a code of conduct, safety regulations for the transportation of bodies carrying infectious diseases, regulation of mortuaries and the roll-out of industry training programs but the Queensland Government has not yet acted upon it.
Perhaps those pesky public servants cannot see what is actually wrong with what the Funeral Directors Association calls “unchecked funeral directors” not even having a hearse or office but relying on public crematorium chapels and churches to hold services, and hiring mortuaries belonging to other firms.
For the New South Wales leg of the lobbying campaign the spokespeople for the high priced end of the undertaking market have chosen a slightly different tack in their attempt to keep the fees high. For them, as explained in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday, the big problem with a lack of regulation is that anyone can walk into the morgue and claim a body without showing identification, prompting fears that corpses could be wrongly removed or defiled. At Royal North Shore Hospital it was possible for members of the public to enter the mortuary’s freezer, which stores up to 10 bodies, and ”help themselves”, the secretary of the Funeral Industry Association, Graham Stewart, said.
He said undertakers were in fear that the wrong body could be buried or cremated before hospital staff had checked the paperwork, a particular concern for Jews or Muslims, who must usually be buried within 24 hours of death, or on days when two people with the same surname were in the morgue.
”It’s been going on for years and it’s appalling, but the health department told us not to complain to the hospital because they could make things worse for us,” Mr Stewart said.
At other hospitals, undertakers were required to submit detailed paperwork at the medical records office before being escorted to the mortuary by a porter and monitored by a morgue attendant while they removed the body.
”Not at Royal North Shore,” the proprietor of Mannings Funerals, John Manning, said yesterday.
”Anyone can walk in there, pick up a body without any paperwork and nobody would be any the wiser.”
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