One year ago, Laida K. Bushnell, an exporter and consultant, paid $239 for a 24-month membership in the Barbara Ellen Fitness Center near her home in Mount Vernon. That entitled her to use the facilities through Feb. 19, 1984. But last month, Barbara Ellen closed its centers and filed for bankruptcy.
Bushnell is one of an estimated 12,000 Washington area women waiting to find out if they will be able to collect on their unexpired memberships.
Attorneys for the company have set up a special telephone number (273-0177) for women to call for the latest recorded information on efforts to have other clubs honor the Barbara Ellen membership agreements. Instructions explaining how Barbara Ellen members can file claims are to be mailed out from the bankruptcy court within three to four weeks, according to company attorneys.
Some area health clubs are advertising special offers giving Barbara Ellen members the opportunity to use their facilities for a limited period without cost or obligation. Others are running their usual ads, urging men and women to come in, work out and slim down for spring.
Persons interested in joining a club should shop carefully, ask precise questions and know their rights.
Federal Trade Commission representative Neal Friedman said that although many people regularly use and enjoy health clubs, many others complain about the high pressure sales tactics they encountered when trying to get information about club prices and facilities.
Other complaints concern misrepresentations about services, equipment and facilities that are promised but never installed and, as Barbara Ellen members know too well, about spas that suddenly go out of business.
To help consumers avoid disappointment, the FTC has published a fact sheet called "Health Spas: Exercise Your Rights." A copy can be ordered free from the FTC, Washington, D.C., 20580.
Here are some suggestions from that publication:
* Inspect the club during the hours that you would normally use the facilities and answer these questions: Is the club overcrowded? Are the facilities clean and well-maintained? Is the equipment working and in good condition? What qualifications and training do instructors have?
* Consider the contracts carefully. Before signing anything, answer these questions: Is everything the salesperson promised written in the contract? Does the club give you any time to reconsider your decision to join after you sign the contract? Can you get a refund if you need to cancel because of an illness or a move to another city?
* Compute the full cost of the membership. Add the finance charges, if you are paying for the membership with a credit card or on an installment plan. When you have determined the full cost, calculate the cost per week or per day to see what you will be paying.
* Contact your local consumer protection office, state attorney general or Better Business Bureau to find out if they have received any complaints about the club. If problems arise after you join, you can contact those offices for assistance.
If the club is in Maryland, ask the salesperson if a bond was posted with the state as required by a new law that took effect last year. The bond is intended to help members get their money back if the club shuts down. Ask the representative for the name of the company from which the club bought its bond and the surety bond number.
Barbara Ellen didn't post the bond required in Maryland because, company attorneys said, officials rewrote the membership contracts to avoid having to comply with the law. Neither Virginia nor the District requires health clubs to post bonds.
Some clubs insist that you join immediately and will offer what they say are special time-limited rates as an incentive. "But if you wait a few days, you may make a better decision," the FTC advises.
Officials at the FTC and in local consumer agencies agree that consumers, as a general rule, should join exercise clubs for a short time rather than for a long time. They also recommend that you take advantage of any "trial" programs the club offers.
"That way, if you are not enjoying the membership or using it as much as you planned, you will not be committed to many years of payments," the FTC said.
Just as important, if the club suddenly closes its doors, the short-term member won't lose as much money.