4 Ways These Companies Are Taking Advantage of You

Researching our doctors. Recycling. Furthering your education. We’re doing all the right things. So why are these companies taking advantage of so many of us?

The Recycling Myth

Think you know where your old plastic ends up?

Once a week, you dutifully set out your bin full of recyclables for collection. You’re happy to do your part for the environment because plastic, which is derived from fossil fuels, contributes to pollution and climate change. And while it has its good points—plastic is both lightweight and durable, saving fuel in transport—the best thing about it is that it’s easily recycled. Now, about that…

In fact, over the past four decades, less than 10 percent of all plastic in the United States has been recycled. Some items are reused more than others. We repurpose about 30 percent of used water, soda, shampoo, and bleach bottles. But that still leaves 70 percent piling up in dumps, or worse. China, the biggest market for our old plastic, stopped importing it altogether in 2018. While consumers may well be ignorant of this fact, the plastics industry is not. NPR, working with the PBS series Frontline, recently dug up reports sent to industry executives that called recycling plastic “costly … difficult … infeasible.” And this was way back in the 1970s and ’80s! “There was never an enthusiastic belief that recycling was ultimately going to work in a significant way,” Lew Freeman, former vice president of the industry’s lobby­ing group, the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), now the Plastics Industry Association, told NPR and Frontline.

Though not much has changed since those reports were written, the plastics industry continues to shovel millions of dollars into promoting recycling via ads and education. Why? Public relations. “If the public thinks the recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment,” says Larry Thomas, another former SPI executive.

Communities have to do something with all that unrecycled plastic. That often means burning it with the rest of the trash. “About six times more postconsumer plastic waste is burned in the United States than is domestically recycled,” reports the Plastic Pollution Coalition, while the Center for International Environmental Law points out that producing and incinerating plastics will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere annually, “an amount equal to the emissions from 189 500-megawatt coal power plants.”

That’s probably not what you’re thinking when you haul your bottles to the curb.

shake shack restuarant at nightrd.com, Getty Images

Corporate Welfare

Some companies profited off a pandemic.

You’re a small-business owner forced to shut down for a time during the COVID-19 pandemic. You’re worried about your employees. If you lay them off, how will they live? But then you hear that Washington has approved the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). It’s designed to provide an incentive for small businesses to keep paying their workers’ salaries by lending the owners money—which they don’t need to pay back if the bulk is put toward payroll and other costs. Perfect!

At 12:01 a.m. on April 3, the very first minute of the program, you apply for a loan online and wait for the check to come. And then you wait a bit more. Until 13 days later, when you discover that the $349 billion emergency funding is completely tapped out. Not only that, but only a measly 5 percent of small businesses that applied actually received loans.

So who got the checks? Let’s see: Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Shake Shack, AutoNation… As it turns out, 440 loans bypassed small businesses and went to large publicly traded corporations, many of which had the wherewithal to raise capital without a helping hand from the feds.

While those 440 loans accounted for only 1.5 percent of the 25,000 loans granted, many were for large sums—for example, AutoNation was given $77 million. Individual loans of over $2 million each sucked up a quarter of the total pool of money. A second round of loans was more stringent. Still, loans for $2 million–plus made up 16 percent of the total sum.

“It’s outrageous,” Amanda Ballantyne of Main Street Alliance, an advocacy group for small businesses, told the New York Times. Countless small-business owners “have laid off all their staff and will go bankrupt because of the problems with the way the PPP was designed.”

So how did this mess happen? To get the money to applicants quickly, the government had the Small Business Administration guarantee the loans, but banks distributed them. The banks decided which companies got funding, and they often favored their best customers. According to NPR, the average PPP loan at large banks was over $90,000. At small banks, it was $58,000. As a result, Escalade Sports, which makes Ping-Pong tables, basketball hoops, and the like, got $5.6 million even with a “$50 million credit line from ­JPMorgan Chase” and after reporting it saw “rising demand for its products, with so many Americans cooped up in their homes,” says the New York Times.

A similar program saw the Department of Health and Human Services disburse billions to distressed hospitals. Among the “distressed” hospitals was Ascension Health, which operates 150 hospitals nationwide. It received $211 million…even though it operates its own venture capital fund.

Hospitals that serve a greater proportion of wealthier, privately insured patients got twice as much relief as those focused on low-income patients with Medicaid or no coverage at all. In other words, the hospitals that needed the money most got the least. That includes St. Claire HealthCare, the largest rural hospital system in eastern Kentucky. The $3 million the hospital received in April barely covered two weeks of payroll, chief executive Donald H. Lloyd II told the Times. The loan, he said, “is just a Band-Aid.”

Taxpayer outrage triggered a game of corporate mea culpa, resulting in 69 large companies returning the loans. As of September 1, of the $1,390,298,467 doled out to publicly traded companies, $436,477,630 had been returned, according to factsquared.com, a data analysis website. The first was Shake Shack, which sent back its $10 million check, followed by AutoNation, Ashford Hospitality Trust ($45.9 million), and Ruth’s Hospitality Group, owners of Ruth’s Chris ($20 million).

Still, most companies kept the money, citing the uncertain economy. Which is just wrong, treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin said on CNBC. Even though eventually most of the small businesses that applied for PPP loans ended up receiving them, “The purpose of this program was not social welfare for big business.”

pov looking up at the doctors from the operating tablerd.com, Getty Images

Surprise Medical Billing

The real pain comes after the operation.

You’re about to have minor surgery, so of course you do your homework. Nowadays that means you not only make sure that your surgeon and hospital have good track records; you make sure that they both take your insurance too.

You wake up from the procedure to discover that everything went great—except that the ­hospital-assigned ­anesthesiologist who put you under is not in your insurance network and you are stuck paying his bill in full.

Welcome to the Surprise Medical Bill. Actually, surprise might not be the right word, given that about 20 percent of all surgical patients will receive one. For them, the “surprise” can soar to around $14,000 in out-of-network costs. No wonder 137 million Americans are mired in medical debt. The infuriating factor here is that the majority of those folks (about 63 percent) had health insurance when treatment began. Isn’t this why we have health insurance—to pay the bills?

Studies from Yale and the Journal of the American Medical Association have found that the surprise bills come typically from anesthesiologists and surgical assistants, specialists that patients rarely select personally. They are brought in by the surgeons or the hospital—the very ones who should know who or what is covered by a patient’s insurance. A Yale study found that up to 12.3 percent of cases involving a pathologist, an anesthesiologist, an assistant surgeon, and a radiologist were billed out of network. In contrast, orthopedists performing knee ­replacements—a service for which a patient can choose an in-­network physician ahead of time—billed out of network less than 1 percent of the time.

“The ability to bill out of network allows specialists to negotiate inflated in-network rates, which are passed on to consumers in the form of higher insurance premiums,” Zack Cooper, an associate professor at the Yale School of Public Health, told Yale News.
How much more? According to the journal Health Affairs, in-­network rates for assistant surgeons were 176 percent of the Medicare-­negotiated fee; for anesthesiologists it was 367 percent. The out-of-network rates: 802 percent of the Medicare rate for anesthesiologists and 2,652 percent for assistant surgeons.

Last year, Congress proposed legislation allowing patients receiving care at in-network hospitals to pay only the in-network cost, even if an individual doctor is out of network. Patient advocates are eager to see it approved. After all, it’s a clear matter of fairness. “You don’t pick these people. You don’t know them,” Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told the Atlantic. “You learn their name when the bill comes.”

student standing in an empty college classroomrd.com, Getty Images

For-profit Colleges

An education on scams.

You decide to enroll in a private for-profit college. The school is not as cheap as a public university, but its job-specific programs and flexible schedule suit your work hours. Besides, the impressive job-placement rate it boasts makes you optimistic that you might just find that higher-paying job. Then you graduate, and you discover that you may have been cheated.

According to the Century Foundation, a public-policy research institution, 98 percent of all fraud complaints against colleges are brought against for-profit schools. Among them is Career Education Corporation (now called Perdoceo Education Corporation), which operates Colorado Technical University and American Inter­Continental University. In 2019, the company agreed to cancel $493.7 million in student debt for nearly 180,000 former students. Forbes said investigations by states’ attorneys general and the U.S. Senate found that Career Education deceived students about the total costs of enrollment; misled students about the transferability of credits; and failed to disclose that certain programs lacked the necessary accreditation.

The scandals didn’t start with Career Education. In 2016, the largest for-profit educator, ITT Tech, was forced to close after it was learned that the school had lured students with exaggerated graduation and job-­placement figures. Dream Center Education Holdings shut 41 campuses under the names the Art Institutes and Argosy University after improperly withholding millions in financial aid from students, including veterans on the GI Bill.

At least these schools had teachers. Reagan National University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was accredited to teach in 2017, yet as of this past February, it had no students, no faculty, and no classrooms, according to a joint report in USA Today and the Argus Leader. What it does have is a link to the University of Northern Virginia, a suspected “visa mill” (a school that functions primarily to let foreign students enter the United States).

It doesn’t get much better for students should they actually graduate. As U.S. News & World Report points out, “degrees conferred by for-profit colleges often do not produce the earning power graduates hope to achieve” nor “the same educational quality they may expect at nonprofit colleges.” As such, students have difficulty finding jobs, let alone high-paying ones, which leads to trouble paying off loans. The National Bureau of Economic Research found that while only 6.7 percent of all college students were enrolled in a for-profit school, they made up 39 percent of college students who defaulted on their federal loans.

It’s no wonder that among the more than 1,230 campuses that closed over the past five years, 88 percent were operated by for-profit colleges. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, roughly 450,000 displaced for-profit college students, many of whom are working adults living paycheck to paycheck, had their hopes to attain the American dream derailed.

“One class left,” read a quote in the Chronicle from Lisa La More’s Facebook page after the Art Institute of California’s San Diego campus shut down recently. “Less than three weeks from my BS in Graphic and Web. Six years of my life wasted. I am 48 years old, with teenage kids. What am I supposed to do now?”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Andy Simmons
Andy Simmons is a features editor at Reader's Digest.