Everyone wants health care reform. And every special interest, from the American Medical Association to the drug industry to the big insurance companies, is telling the White House and Congress what it wants. Whatever the health plan becomes, consumers must also be participants, not just “recipients” in the restructuring of the health care delivery system in the United States. The value of independent consumer participation and action was recently demonstrated in Illinois. Under a settlement reached between Commonwealth Edison, the largest electric utility in Illinois, Illinois Citizens Utility Board (CUB) and other consumer representatives, customers will receive a $1.34 billion refund and a $339 million rate cut. This amounts to a savings of $272 for the average single-family residential consumer and about $1,750 for the typical small business establishment.
The landmark settlement is one of the largest refunds in history by an American utility company. As pointed out by CUB Executive Director Sue Stewart, “For years, CUB has been fighting Corn Ed’s attempts to charge consumers billions of dollars for three unneeded nuclear power plants. This agreement means those efforts have paid off big for consumers.”
Citizens Utility Boards have been successfully representing residential utility consumers before the regulatory, legislative and judicial bodies of Wisconsin, Illinois, Oregon and California since the early and mid-80’s. Their effectiveness in saving utility consumers from unwarranted increases and educating the public about energy saving has been impressive. The Illinois CUB alone has assisted in saving consumers over $3 billion in the
last eight years (the savings will total $4.34 billion with this new victory). In 1991, New
York Governor Mario Cuomo directed the state’s Department of Public Service to certify a CUB and established that the CUB would have the right to insert enclosures in state mailings to New York residents.
CUBs have the right to enclose notices inside certain state mailings to communicate with the public and solicit members. CUB pays for this enclosure. “Piggybacking” the state’s mailing is a convenient and effective way to communicate with consumers. It also provides a basis for sufficiency and financial accountability.
Any consumer can voluntarily join and have a vote in the election of the CUB Board of Directors. This process ensures that the leadership of CUB reflects the interests of consumers. CUB is funded through voluntary citizen contributions — it does not rely on tax dollars for support.
The CUB Directors serve without pay and hire full-time staff such as accountants, attorneys, economists, organizers, and lobbyists. The staff represents consumers before legislative bodies, government agencies and in the courts, conduct research on issues of concern to consumers, survey public opinion on consumer issues, provide analysis of consumer complaint handling and provide general information and assistance to consumers.
Health care consumers need a consumer-controlled, democratically operated, voluntary citizen advocacy group that has the right to insert membership solicitations — in the form of one-page, fold-up business reply envelopes — in selected, periodic mass government mailings and insurance and health care provider mailings. Consumers can voluntarily join for a minimal fee. All costs of producing the inserts and any incremental postage costs would be borne by the organization, not the carrier of the insert.
A CUB-like organization for health consumers could:
Investigate consumer complaints and represent consumers in administrative, legislative, regulatory and judicial proceedings;
Provide consumers with preventive health care information and a better understanding of the new system and create “report cards” on the private supplemental insurance plans outside the purview of the Health Alliances;
Conduct independent reviews of the new systems and act as clearinghouses on the state and national levels; and
Review the systems’ practices and policies of ensuring quality of care and promote a Patients’ Bill of Rights.
Giving consumers a chance to communicate with one another is an easy, efficient way to save consumers money and to ensure accountability, without spending one cent of taxpayers’ money.
Congress should make the CUB model a major component of the health care plan and help citizens all over the country to pool their financial resources, energy, and experience, to hire the experts necessary to represent them and educate the public about many issues of concern to all health care consumers.
For more information on CUB write to Phyllis Turner, P.O.Box 19312, Washington, DC 20036.