With Ad, Consumers Union Claims New Role In Health Debate

This week, Consumers Union, the nonprofit organization that publishes Consumer Reports magazine, stepped into the health care debate by airing a 30-second television ad supporting an overhaul. Although the group is known for taking very public — and sometimes controversial — positions on consumer products and services, it says it has never before broadcast a television commercial on a public policy question.

Consumers Union is spending $200,000 to air the spot in the Washington, D.C. area for two weeks. Jim Guest, the group’s president and CEO, says a health care overhaul is needed to ease the burden of rising health care costs on consumers.

Consumers Union also released the results of a national telephone poll that highlighted concerns about the health care  system. Almost 60 percent of the 1,002 adults surveyed said that, during the past two years, health care costs had increased faster than other expenses. For 73 percent of respondents, the greatest health care worry was that an illness or accident would cause a major financial loss. More than 60 percent said they were “very or somewhat concerned” that they would be denied care because of insurance company rationing. Even among those over age 65, and covered by Medicare, a government insurance program, 71 percent feared rationing. 

KHN’s Jaclyn Schiff spoke with Guest, who described the current debate as “crunch time” for what may be “one of the biggest consumer issues” in U.S. history. Excerpts follow.

Q. What were some of the most surprising findings in the poll?

A. The poll underscored that Americans are really being badly affected by the health care system today and they’re worried about the future. One really strong finding is that half of Americans, 51 percent, say they have actually put off medical care. They haven’t filled prescriptions. They’ve cut pills in half. They have not done follow-up visits or medical procedures that were recommended by their providers. That’s half the population being affected right there.

Q. This is the first time your organization has run a TV ad supporting a public policy position. Why now? 

A. We made the decision to run the ad before we even had the poll results. We’ve been engaged in the health care arena going back to our founding in 1936. In the last few years we’ve been even more active. What is dramatically clear is that reform is absolutely vital to getting costs under control, getting quality improved and providing consumers with care they need in an affordable fashion. This is the year for action. This is the year when we can actually achieve health care reform, which we first recommended back in 1939. So now it’s 70 years later.

We’ve seen it in our polling and we’ve seen it in other work that we do in terms of what’s on the minds of the American public. Clearly this is a very, very big issue. We also feel that this is a unique and one-time opportunity. That is part of why we’re saying the consumer voice has to be very much in the conversation and in the minds of legislators. This issue affects consumers and that is why we’re doing this and ramping it up even more than our normal active advocacy.

Q. A lot of angry comments about your pro-reform campaign have been posted on the Consumer Reports Health Blog. Are you concerned about how the decision to run it might affect your group’s reputation as an independent, unbiased consumer advocacy organization?

A. No, I’m not. Since we started, we’ve been public about our positions. We’ve never pulled punches before. No matter what we say — whether we’re saying Japanese cars are finishing higher than American cars — some people criticize us. [The criticism] is not going to hold us back from saying what we believe.

Q. Your ad calls on policy makers to act and pass a comprehensive health reform bill. What components do you think should be included in the legislation?

A. First, absolutely, it has to cut health care costs. There are a variety of ways to do that. One is to have more competition among the health insurance plans. Another, over time, is to set some things in place that can really change the reimbursement system. Right now, doctors and hospitals get paid on volume and quantity not on quality. So the incentives are wrong. We also think that consumers need better information so that they can make informed decisions about hospitals, doctors, medical treatments, drugs or health plans. The other part of it is we really believe that health reform needs to cover everyone.

Q. What about the public option? Is it a necessary component of the legislation?

A. Yes absolutely. There has got to be competition and competition among the health plans and health insurers. That is the best and most immediate way to achieve it.

Consumer Reports Poll Results