Last reviewed: August 2009
Here, a monthly perspective from Consumers Union on the latest challenges—and possible solutions—facing U.S. consumers today. See archived letters.

A prescription for health care

Almost all agree that the health system is broken. Here's how Consumers Union would fix it.

This article is the archived version of a report that appeared in the August 2009 Consumer Reports magazine.

This summer, for the first time in 16 years, Washington seems poised to address the problems plaguing American health care. Take the fact that your medical costs are soaring at about twice the rate of inflation, for starters. Even if you don't pay the bills directly, you see the increase in higher insurance premiums, deductibles, and copays. And what are you getting for your money? A system that often limits your choice of doctors and hospitals, forces you to satisfy a complex web of rules to get reimbursed, locks you into a job for fear of losing coverage, and strands you without affordable protection if you lose insurance while suffering a chronic condition. No wonder that in recent years, medical bills or illness have contributed to 62 percent of all U.S. bankruptcies, and 46 million people go without any coverage at all.

If the problems are self-evident, the solutions are less so. On the political right, you'll find conservatives for whom "reform" is just the first step toward European-style socialism. You've seen their ads pop up on TV, sponsored by groups you've never heard of, full of scary warnings about faceless bureaucrats standing between you and needed care (as if you didn't have that now from insurance companies).

On the flip side, you'll hear some left-leaning commentators claim that the only solution is to nationalize health care as the British and Canadians have done. Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, has long argued for stronger government protection for consumers. But that doesn't mean we'd favor creating a huge new federal bureaucracy to manage an industry that constitutes a whopping 18 percent of the economy.

The right solution in today's environment lies somewhere between those poles. And it must be a truly American solution, one that takes advantage of our traditional ingenuity and entrepreneurship while preserving freedom, fairness, and choice.

In this special expanded Viewpoint column, we present Consumers Union's views on health reform. Rather than offering up a dense policy treatise, we divide the article into seven sections like the one at right. Each section opens with a person talking about his or her health-care experience. They're a diverse group—a waitress, a retired Air Force captain, a doctor, a business owner, and others—who, together, have seen the best and worst of today's care. And each section closes with one of our key goals for change, along with details about how we think a reformed system should work. (For a complete report on our policy positions, go to We also lay out the facts behind some common fears about reform. And we follow two women who beat breast cancer, but with very different financial consequences.

Not every reader will agree with each position here, of course, and we respect those differences of opinion. Regardless of your views, we urge you to contact your legislator, talk to family and friends, and volunteer to help the reform group of your choice. For more about our reform efforts or to share your story, go to

Fixing health care will take hard work by many and some degree of sacrifice by all. But Americans have faced, and conquered, bigger challenges in the past. Consumers Union thinks the effort is well worth it. And we support reform as an essential investment in our country's future, one that will result in lower costs and better health for you, your family, and the generations to come.

Read about our latest reform efforts and our analysis of legislation as its being debated in Washington, D.C. in our Guide to Health-Care Reform.