The Big Issue
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By Corinna Wu

The Big Issue

American Cancer Society advertisements focus on access to care

By Corinna Wu


Raina Bass has survived cancer not once, but twice. At 15, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and had her left ovary removed—which left her uninsured family tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Then in 2006, at 25, she learned she had thyroid cancer. This time, Bass had two insurance policies: one through her job and one through her husband’s. But the policies didn’t fully cover her treatment. Again, she faced thousands of dollars of unpaid medical bills—a debt that she and her husband are still paying off.

Bass has been telling her story as part of an American Cancer Society (ACS) advertising campaign spotlighting access to affordable health care and the inadequacies of many health insurance plans. The ACS considers the issue so important that it has devoted its entire $15 million annual advertising budget to the campaign. Some consider the move to be a radical departure for the society, which usually focuses its advertising on health promotion, such as encouraging people to stop smoking or to get screened for cancer.

Despite great advances in the development of effective cancer treatments, “the best care is only available to a small fraction of people,” says Richard Wender, the national volunteer president of the ACS.

The stories told in the ads “describe the realities for the underinsured and uninsured working poor in America,” says Martha Gaines, a clinical professor of law at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the director of the Center for Patient Partnerships. “They are absolutely the kinds of clients we see all the time.”

In this election year, the TV and print ads are meant to stimulate a grassroots effort to make the issue of health care coverage more prominent in the 2008 presidential election. At a press conference launching the ad campaign in September, the presence on the panel of actor Bradley Whitford from NBC’s The West Wing made the metaphorical connection between health care reform and the future occupant of the White House.

The ads are nonpartisan, and the group does not endorse particular candidates or their health care proposals. But the ACS is offering tools for evaluating plans put forth by the candidates, says Daniel Smith, the president of the ACS’s advocacy organization, the Cancer Action Network. “There are multiple ways to get to reform.”

To that end, the ACS has outlined four principles for what constitutes “meaningful insurance”: adequacy, affordability, availability and administrative simplicity. The Cancer Action Network has also identified specific legislative priorities, including increased funding for the National Institutes of Health, the regulation of tobacco by the Food and Drug Administration, and the passage of laws covering colorectal cancer screening.

Critics of the campaign have expressed disappointment in the ACS’s spending money on what they consider to be a political issue. But Gaines sees the effort as a natural step forward for the group, which has “always described itself as an advocacy organization for people with cancer. I think it indicates a deepening of their understanding and commitment to their strategic plan, which is to make a significant impact on the incidence and mortality rates of cancer.”

Fifteen years ago, Hillary Clinton headed a task force on national health care reform, and the group proposed a universal health care plan that was poorly received. “I am much more confident this time. Because the last time, the truth is, the system wasn’t as broken as it is now,” says ACS Chief Executive Officer John Seffrin. “Secondly, now, more if not all major leaders are calling for the same thing—which is universal access to health care.”