Patient in Line users can't get company to stop charging recurring monthly fees

Months after paying what they thought was a one-time fee, people who signed up for an online service that promises a way to skip the doctor’s waiting room are still getting credit card charges, month after month.

Online service subject of almost 200 consumer protection complaints over past 2 years

Brothers Bashar (left) and Bassam Daher, pitched their service on Dans l'œil de dragon, Quebec’s version of Dragon’s Den. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Months after paying what they thought was a one-time fee, people who signed up for an online service that promises a way to skip the doctor's waiting room are still getting credit card charges, month after month.

And they can't make them stop.

Former customers accuse the website, called Patient en ligne, or Patient in Line, of preying on consumer apathy by billing clients a recurring monthly fee small enough that many won't notice, then making it difficult, if not impossible, to cancel.

CBC News spoke to five patients who complain of unanswered emails, calls not returned and continued roadblocks to cancelling a subscription they never knew they signed up for.

Two are still being billed the $3.44 monthly fee.

How it works

Patient in Line allows patients waiting to see a doctor to leave the clinic and get a text when their MD is ready to see them.

CBC first reported on the online service last April, when Quebec's consumer protection agency, the Office de la protection du consommateur, sent a warning to the Laval-based company, advising Patient in Line that it wasn't respecting Quebec's Consumer Protection Act.

The walk-in clinic at the Queen Elizabeth Health Complex in Montreal's NDG neighbourhood offered the service, but cancelled it after receiving complaints about the recurring billing.

"They changed their billing process without informing us. All our patients were thinking they were using a once-off service," said the clinic's medical director, Dr. Mark Roper, at the time.

In a recent email to CBC, clinic CEO Irene Tschernomor called the Queen Elizabeth clinic's experience with Patient in Line "horrible."

Patient in Line blamed the clinic for the complaints. In a response to CBC's April article, the company said on its website that the clinic should have told patients its fee structure had changed, offering patients both a one-off and a monthly subscription service.

Lindsay Holesh said the service worked as advertised, then noticed she kept being billed as if it were a monthly subscription. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

The company also promised to cancel the subscriptions and reimburse those affected.  But some of those one-time customers say are paying to this day.

Debit stopped — but no refunds

It's been almost a year since Lindsay Holesh used the service, on Dec. 17, 2016. She was sick and caring for her young daughter and didn't want to wait in the clinic waiting room.

She said the service worked as advertised.

"Then I noticed on my credit card on Jan. 17 they charged me again," she said. "And then they charged me again on Feb.17."

Holesh says she called the company to ask them to stop but didn't get anywhere.

"I must have sent them three or four emails, and I threatened them with social media," she said. She said the company finally stopped the recurring debit but didn't refund her money.

Sophie Giroux, too, is still paying the monthly fee despite asking the company to stop.

"You can't even speak to anybody when you do call," she said.

Giroux says she's given up trying to get in touch with the company.

"It's to the point that you're just like, 'Ah, it's just three dollars, you know, I spend three dollars on a coffee.'"

Giroux's credit card company suggested she cancel her card, but she says she'd have to notify all the other merchants that take pre-authorized payments.

She thinks the company should face legal consequences.

"There should be some sort of punitive damages," she said. "Like, they're getting away with fraud."

(CBC)

Misleading business practice complaints pile up

A spokesperson for Quebec's consumer protection agency, Charles Tanguay, said over the past two years, the office has received 197 complaints about Patient in Line -- the majority for misleading business practices.

He said Patient in Line never responded to the agency's formal warning last April, which chided the company for failing to inform customers about the details of the contract when they sign up.

They also said the company was debiting credit cards monthly without customers' permission.

Nicola McEnroe, who has been billed for the service since last January, said she wants the consumer protection agency to do more than issue a warning.

"I would absolutely like them to take further action," she said. "I think they should take this more seriously."

Tanguay wouldn't comment on the status of the file but said whether to take the company to court is up to the agency's discretion.

CBC's requests for comment ignored

CBC tried several times to reach the founders of the service, Bashar and Bassam Daher.  Despite calls, texts and emails, we never received a reply.

The fee for Patients in Line that appeared on Lindsay Holesh's monthly bank statement. (CBC)

In 2014, the two brothers pitched their business on Dans l'œil de dragon, Quebec's version of Dragon's Den.

In the appearance they talk about Patient on Line charging per use, with no mention of a monthly subscription.

In its April 20 post in response to CBC's original report on its practices, the company said that "in the coming weeks," it planned to hand over its intellectual property to a non-profit organization.

But Quebec's corporate registry still has the Daher brothers listed as shareholders as of Dec. 8.