Charge for phone service for deaf raises furor 45 cent monthly fee is nation's highest

August 02, 1991|By Leslie Cauley

An article last Thursday on telephone service for the hearing impaired suggested that Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. would earn a fee for collecting money to finance the program. The $200,000 fee covers the cost of billing and collecting only.

State regulators have been bombarded by more than 750 complaints about a newly imposed 45 cent-a-month charge on phone bills that will be used to provide telephone service for the deaf and hearing-impaired. The charge -- as much as nine times higher than in other states -- is the steepest such fee in the nation.

"People are very hostile about the charge," said Frank Fulton of the Public Service Commission. "They are openly defiant about paying it."

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

And new complaints are pouring in every day, Mr. Fulton said.

By federal law, states are required to set up telephone systems to handle calls for the deaf, part of a 1990 initiative to make phone service universally available to the nation's deaf and hearing-impaired.

The fees will be used to build Maryland's new system for the deaf, a relay station staffed by 200 operators trained to place calls for people using a Telephone Device for the Deaf (TDD). Operators will place calls between hearing-impaired and non-hearing-impaired people on a 24-hour basis.

The state Department of General Services, which is overseeing installation and operation of the system, estimates that the project will cost $13.5 million to get started. The cost is being spread among Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co.'s 2 million customers in the form of a "Universal" charge that started showing up on phone bills this month.

Frank Just, a C&P spokesman, said the company will make about $200,000 this year as the state's collection agent for the "Universal" fee.

At 45 cents per line, Maryland's fee is the highest in the nation.

Connecticut, for example, is charging 5 cents per month to cover the costs of building a telephone system for its hearing-impaired population. Georgia charges 7 cents, Hawaii 12 cents and Delaware 13 cents.

Mississippi has levied one of the highest fees outside of Maryland. But at 20 cents per line, it is less than half the Maryland rate.

Maryland's Department of General Services, which was

responsible for calculating the 45 cent per-line fee, defends the charge as necessary, in part because of the state's high concentration of deaf and hearing-impaired residents.

The department estimates that there are 350,000 deaf or hearing-impaired people in Maryland, giving it one of the highest concentrations of hearing-disabled people in the nation. One reason is the close proximity of Gallaudet University in Washington, the nation's only liberal arts college for the deaf. Joe Harrison, a department spokesman, said many Gallaudet students, faculty members and graduates live in Maryland.

He said that other states have equally large pockets of hearing-impaired residents, but they also have more people among whom to divide the cost. The result, he said, is that Marylanders may feel a financial pinch that isn't felt elsewhere.

"A key ingredient here is that Maryland is a small state, and we have a relatively few number of lines to tap for funding compared to other states, like California or Texas," Mr. Harrison said.

Within 18 months after the new relay center is in place, the department estimates that 100,000 hearing-impaired Marylanders will place about 200,000 calls a month. By department estimates, it will cost about $1.2 million a month to cover the cost of handling those calls, or $6 a call. Those calls are billed to users at the regular phone rate.

Mr. Harrison concedes that those costs could grow as usage of (( the system expands. Though state law currently limits the per-line charge to 45 cents, he said that legislation could be enacted to raise that ceiling.

Even at 45 cents a month, a number of people are refusing to pay, said the PSC's Mr. Fulton. "One man told me the commission could tell President Bush to read his lips, that he wouldn't support deaf phone service," he said.

C&P, meanwhile, says it will take whatever steps necessary to get people to cough up the extra 45 cents a month -- even if it means turning off a customer's phone service.

People's Counsel John Glynn said the 45-cent flap has left him more than just a little dumbfounded.

"I'm disappointed in the level of humanity this demonstrates," said Mr. Glynn, who defends the interests of consumers before the commission. "It's 45 cents every month, I know, but permitting the disabled to be on the system is the decent thing to do."

Telephone charges

A sampling of the monthly charges that states have levied to provide telephone service for the deaf and hearing impaired:

cents:

Alabama, Arizona, Colorado,

Connecticut, Missouri, Nevada,

Oklahoma

10-20 cents:

Delaware, Hawaii, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina

20-25 cents:

Florida (starts at 5 cents, 25-cent cap), Wyoming (25-cent cap)

45 cents:

Maryland

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