With two reform bills (HB 2469 and HB 2594) already introduced into the legislature, and two substitute proposals in the works, Missouri legislators and regulators are committed to fixing a law that allowed NPS to exploit consumers and funeral homes. However, consumers and the death care industry are both having difficulty analyzing the specifics of the various proposals. The haste with which legislation is being pressed suggests that regulators know more about the gravity of the NPS situation than what has been disclosed to the public.
Chapter 436 has some obvious problems:
- The combination of a low trusting percentage (the last 80% of payments) and the right to withdraw income currently
- Restrictions on the state board to order inspections or audits
- Minimal reporting requirements
- Ambiguity regarding deposit requirements
- Ambiguity regarding insurance funded preneed
- A lack of rulemaking authority
- An underlying assumption that all preneed contracts will be price guaranteed, and most would be trust funded
- Inadequate provisions for consumer protections when sellers or providers go out of business or are sold
- A general lack of independent oversight
What may not be apparent to legislators, and to consumers, are the many competing economic interests that exist under the “death care” umbrella. There is little doubt that legislators are getting a crash course on those interests. The various proposals already reflect certain interests of regulators, funeral homes and preneed sellers. But if legislators are only now learning the issues, how will they know which proposals are in the best interests of the consumer?
If it were not for the NPS meltdown, Chapter 436 would not be a topic of discussion in Jefferson City. Last year, Representative Meadows proposed a reform bill that was blocked before it could even be discussed. The year before, the State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors put preneed reform on its agenda, but the chairman, Ken McGhee, received very little support, or interest. The sudden interest to fix Chapter 436 is being driven by the NPS failure.
Preneed is a complex issue, and Chapter 436 has more faults than most states’ preneed laws. But, the NPS situation cannot be fixed if we do not know the extent of the damage. It is too late to close this barn door. Rather, the legislature must bring structure to a situation that has many competing interests. The NPS meltdown is unprecedented, and a public forum is needed so that all can understand what went wrong, and where should we go from here.
With regard to drafting preneed reform, the Missouri death care industry has historically relied upon representatives from the State Board, the funeral directors association, the cemetery association, preneed sellers and the consolidators to forge a consensus bill to submit to the legislature. This group has been referred to as the Allied Council. It has been 13 years since the Allied Council forwarded a Chapter 436 proposal to legislators. Ironically, that Allied Council effort was subverted by NPS.
Chapter 436 will be revised. However it should be done with the input of an Allied Council that includes consumers, insurance companies and the attorney general’s office.