U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Lafayette, at an Aug. 1 hearing of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis at CU-Boulder on Aug. 1, 2019.

U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse has asked U.S. Attorney General William Barr to crack down on price gouging for health products amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The pandemic “has led to a surge in demand for — and in even shortage of — many consumer products, including hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies,” Neguse wrote in the letter, also signed by Democratic U.S. Reps. David Cicilline and Jerrold Nadler and Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner. “Several retailers have taken steps to maintain access to these products. But there have been numerous reports of merchants, small and large, that are taking advantage of the current crisis to prey on consumers by charging outrageous prices for what are usually affordable household staples.”

Earlier this week, The Denver Post reported on craigslist posts advertising individual toilet paper rolls for $15 and 20 face masks for $100. The New York Times profiled a Tennessee man who bought more than 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer with the intent of making a profit on them. (The Tennessee attorney general subsequently opened a price gouging investigation.)

Neguse told Colorado Politics that his letter is generally not meant to prompt an investigation of activity by retail chains and local vendors. “This is geared at the more disreputable actors, those who are scamming the system to try to exploit a crisis for their own pecuniary gain,” he said.

The representatives did not specify what remedies the U.S. Department of Justice should take on price gouging. Instead, they requested that the attorney general work with his state counterparts to bring criminal charges appropriately, explore related charges that could encompass gouging activity, and to recommend to Congress ideas for legislation to provide authority to go after gougers.

“We’re currently engaged in discussions with colleagues around trying to enact a price gouging statute at the federal level,” Neguse said.

Colorado does not have a price gouging law. Attorney General Phil Weiser issued a consumer alert during the pandemic for people to be cautious of schemes, unrealistic product offers and malware that could result from people capitalizing on COVID-19 fears.

Underlying price gouging is an expectation that a scarcity of products will result from a too-low price. Sellers therefore increase prices to ensure an adequate supply remains on the market. But for some items crucial to public health, Neguse said, stockpiling items is detrimental for crisis responders. 

“The fact that you have craigslist ads for masks going for $100 when we consistently are hearing from doctors and nurses and practitioners in our district who are in need of those very same masks is something that warrants congressional attention,” said Neguse.

The congressman explained that while Congress has discussed shortages and disruptions to the medical equipment supply chain, he is aware that there is concern about scarcity of basic consumer necessities as the pandemic wears on.

“There have been a number of representations made in the media by a number of larger retailers that supply chains remain in tact,” he said, “but it's important for us to not take their word for it.”

Neguse voiced support for a number of measures to prop up workers who are struggling due to layoffs or economic slowdown, saying he favors a moratorium on foreclosures, ending the collection of public and private student loan payments during the pandemic, and direct cash assistance. 

He also pointed to emergency policies, like limited paid sick leave, that Congress has legislated in recent weeks that he believes lawmakers will discuss making permanent after the danger ends.

“Clearly this crisis has magnified in so many ways the number of different inequities within the system,” Neguse said, “and I think highlighted the need for Congress to step up and provide an adequate safety net for folks.”

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