In the wake of announcing new fees that have rankled many aquatics professionals, the American Red Cross held a special meeting with a group of California aquatics leaders to address concerns and assure them that the organization is willing to be flexible on pricing.

Red Cross officials said they want to send the same message to program providers nationwide, but some worry such provider-by-provider negotiations will only create more confusion.

“We knew going in that there would be places where we would have to be flexible, and we have been,” said Jack McMaster, Red Cross president, Preparedness and Health and Safety Services, referring to the Red Cross’ new prices.

The American Red Cross said fee increases, developed based on limited pricing data from local chapters nationwide, are necessary to create more uniform pricing that eliminates “free ride” agreements. Such agreements are defined as cases where providers charge a fee for Red Cross programs (such as learn-to-swim or lifeguard instruction) and draw revenue from a large customer base, but don’t remit anything back to the Red Cross, McMaster explained.

But the changes were announced abruptly, and by the time providers got word, many had already set budgets and produced marketing materials, making compliance with the new fees by the deadline impossible. “Our biggest challenge is simply trying to come up with the money that they’re requesting,” said Jim Wheeler, recreation services manager for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, and owner of Total Aquatic Management.

While McMaster admits initial communication regarding the changes could have been better, he said agreements have been reached with the vast majority of providers who have since contacted the Red Cross.

California operators who attended the August meeting, including Wheeler, are optimistic.

“I thought [the meeting] was very productive,” said Judith Sperling, assistant director, risk management training and development at UCLA Recreation in Los Angeles. “They were very open to hearing our unique situations and challenges. ... ”

However, it appears not everyone has heard that message. “The Red Cross fees and spin-offs have some major conversations occurring,” said one Northeastern program provider, who would not give a name on record. “I have not seen it let up. People are mad, frustrated and want options.”

McMaster affirmed that the policy of flexibility includes all program providers. To better serve program providers, the Red Cross has begun rolling out a new organizational structure, which is expected to take some of the burden off  of local chapters.

But will that be enough to address all the providers who cannot meet the new fees? That’s just one of the questions being asked by Manuel Gonzalez, aquatic supervisor for the city of Chula Vista, Calif. Gonzalez also attended the California meeting and while he appreciates the Red Cross’s commitment to providers serving low-income communities, and the willingness to work with everyone, he notes that there are 3,700 providers in San Diego County alone.

“I’m concerned about a situation where individual agencies have to negotiate,” Gonzalez said. “I think it’s a detriment to the industry because agencies that are well positioned may have a better opportunity.”