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Morning Report: How Consumers Lost the Arbitration War

As we’ve told you in recent days, binding arbitration has become a potent weapon [1] for companies that want to avoid losing lawsuits to customers. Now, in the last article [2] in a three-part [3] series [1], we look at how things went south for every one of us who buys goods and services.

Blame a U.S. Supreme Court decision brought by a San Diego couple, consumer advocates say. “It’s earth-shattering. It takes away your right to hold companies accountable for transactions that we all engage in every day,” an attorney tells us. “We all assume that we have a right to hold a company accountable if they’re cheating us. We assume the consumer protection laws will apply. What’s frustrating is the average person doesn’t know that when they take out a contract … they’ve given away their rights.”

For the moment, change seems unlikely. As we report, “without action from the very top, Californians will just have to live with the fact that a longtime remedy against the companies they spend their money on is rapidly disappearing.”

What We’ve Learned About Homelessness

VOSD reporter Kelly Bennett has spent the last few months examining homelessness in San Diego. It’s now time for her to move on to other topics, but first she takes one last look [4] at what we’ve learned through her reporting.

Among other things, her round-up examines San Diego’s share of federal funding for the homeless, a project to help the most expensive homeless and possible problems brewing at the new homeless center downtown.

Price Check Reveals Huge Hospital Disparities

Need a new pacemaker? It could cost you $86,000 or $139,000, depending on which hospital you go to in our county. Need to have a drug-coated stent inserted to prevent cardiovascular problems? Try $50,000 or $120,000. Even treatment for pneumonia or pleurisy, an infection of the lining of the lungs, could cost you $27,000 or $42,000 — at hospitals within the Scripps system that are both in La Jolla.

These numbers come from a newly released federal database that our contributor Karina Ioffee examined for a new story [5] on our site. “The information, released for the first time ever, put a spotlight on the exorbitant price of health care, and the wide variation in what consumers can expect to pay when they get sick or injured, including in San Diego,” she reports.

So why are the prices so different just among San Diego-area hospitals? Nobody knows. Or if they do, they aren’t saying.

To make things more complicated, these prices are a bit like those manufacturer’s suggested list prices that few, if anyone, actually pays. “One of the reasons hospitals have these unrealistic prices is they know people aren’t going to pay. They’re trying to catch the few that can, but they also end up catching the poor,” one local expert tells us.

NYC Gingerly Prepares for Bike-Sharing

A bike-sharing program remains a major goal for San Diego [6], whose leaders want the city to be more cyclist-friendly. However, as we told you a few days ago, bike-sharing isn’t turning out to be a simple proposition in New York City.

Now, with the Big Apple’s program about to debut, The New York Times takes another look [7] at the issue. Amazingly, it appears that the project, pushed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “will most likely define his 12 years at the city’s controls.”

What’s the problem? Early hitches, for one thing: “While city officials have said that bike sharing is beloved in virtually every location at which it has been tried, some beginnings have been bumpy. The Vélib’ system in Paris, one of the largest programs in the world, saw a spate of rider deaths in its early years and suffered widespread theft and vandalism of equipment.”

One concern: lots of new cyclists who aren’t used to cycling in a big city.

Quick News Hits

• The city has hired a company to eliminate the infamous stench from bird poop in La Jolla by using what Mayor Bob Filner calls a “microbial odor counteractant and cleaner.” It will begin work today, NBC 7 San Diego reports [8]. For background, check our November story that raised a big stink here [9].

• The county grand jury, which has been criticized by local journalists as out of touch and ineffective, may have finally uncovered something: In a new report, it says the Sheriff’s Department is ignoring essential immunization and screening guidelines in its jails, threatening both inmates and the public art large, CityBeat reports [10].

Among other things, the report says the county fails to screen inmates for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, along with various types of hepatitis.

• U-T San Diego reports [11] that half of the San Diego police force is eligible for retirement within the next four years, adding to the existing problem of an exodus from the department to higher-paying gigs elsewhere. On the other hand, crime remains low compared with the past. So how many cops are really needed? Check out our earlier look on police retention claims as a primer [12].

• The New York Times takes note [13] of how San Diego Gas & Electric’s power-tracking software allows customers to keep a close eye on how much power they’re using, even down to the hour.

• There’s been lots of reminiscing [14] lately about the celebrity pianist Liberace, the subject of a nifty HBO movie over the weekend.

Turns out he has a San Diego connection: Liberace’s career got a big boost in 1950 when a talent manager signed him after watching him perform [15] at the Hotel del Coronado. As a result, Liberace soon starred in an L.A.-area TV show.

There’s talk [16], by the way, that Liberace invented the concept of “bling.” The 16th century lady in a portrait [17] at Balboa Park’s Timken Museum of Art may beg to differ.

• An old Santee barn [18] has a reputation as being haunted [19] – ghosts of cows and chickens, perhaps? – and now it’s made the news for another reason: because a woman snapping a photo of it captured an unidentified flying object.

“I was like, what was it doing there?” the UFO-spotter told 10News [20], which “went looking for answers [21]” and devoted two minutes to the story.

“And I said,” the woman added, “the next time I come here, the barn will be beamed up.

Then we could call it a USO – Up and Outta Santee.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego and vice president of the American Society of Journalists & Authors. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com [22] and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga [23].

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