Mandated health insurance ruled unconstitutional – National Consumers League

On Monday, a federal judge in Virginia ruled that a central provision of the new Affordable Care Act that mandates that most Americans obtain health insurance is unconstitutional. Since the law passed earlier this year, there have been more than 14 challenges to the law; this is the first instance where the case was not dismissed or the law was not upheld.

History tells us that major new laws often face legal challenges. The Civil Rights Act, Social Security Act, and Voting Rights Act all withstood legal challenges. Proponents of the health reform act argue that the new law falls well within Congress’s power to regulate economic activity under the Commerce Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause, and the General Welfare Clause.

The mandate for most Americans to obtain health insurance is one of the key provisions of the Affordable Care Act that will help extend coverage to more than 30 million people currently uninsured.  Paired with rate regulation, the addition of healthy people to the insurance rolls should make it more affordable for the system – payors, providers, and patients – to treat more expensive and chronic conditions.

The Virginia court found that the mandate that all Americans carry a minimum level insurance by 2014 – exceeds Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce since it compels individuals without health insurance to involuntary enter the stream of commerce to purchase health insurance. However, individuals who choose to go without health insurance are “voluntarily” deciding to pay for health care out-of-pocket or to seek uncompensated care. Every year millions of those who have chosen to go without health insurance actively seek medical care. Thus, people who make an economic decision to forego health insurance do not opt out of the health care market, but instead shift their costs to others when they become ill or are involved in an accident and cannot pay.

The judge in the Virginia case, Judge Hudson, agreed that the implementation of the health care reform law should continue uninterrupted. In the nine months since the health reform law was passed, there has been progress to strengthen our health care system, including implementing a new patient’s bill of rights to end some of the worst insurance company abuses, such as banning insurance companies from discriminating against people with preexisting conditions.

The Justice Department is considering whether to appeal the ruling to the 4th Circuit. As this case and others make it through the appeals process, ultimately the Supreme Court will likely decide the constitutionality of the health reform act, and the reach of Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce.

NCL warning consumers to steer clear of ‘Grandparent Scam’ – National Consumers League

December 15, 2010

Contact: (202) 835-3323,

Washington, DC – The National Consumers League’s Fraud Center today put out an alert to consumers to be aware of scam artists using variations on the so-called “Grandparent Scam” this holiday season. The alert comes in response to a number of consumer complaints that the Fraud Center has received recently regarding attempted and successful frauds by unscrupulous scammers.

In a typical Grandparent Scam, a con artist calls or emails the victim posing as a relative in distress or someone claiming to represent the relative (such as a lawyer or law enforcement agent). The scammer may frantically tell the victim a variation of “Grandma, it’s me,” followed by a description of the problem in which they have found themselves (arrested, in an auto accident, in need of a lawyer, etc.). The victim is then instructed to wire money to the scam artist with the claim that the funds will be used for bail money, lawyer’s fees, hospital bills, or other expense. The victim is urged not to tell anyone, such as the parent of the “grandchild” because they do not want them to find out about the trouble they’ve gotten themselves into.

“Scam artists will stop at nothing to defraud consumers, many of whom are often elderly and living on fixed incomes,” said John Breyault, NCL Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud. “The scary part about this scam is that it preys on our natural inclination to want to help a loved one who is in distress.”

To detect and avoid the Grandparent Scam, NCL’s Fraud Center recommends the following tips:

  • Beware of any urgent solicitation of funds, especially if it is needed to pay for unexpected bills, such as bail money, lawyer’s fees, or doctor bills
  • Before sending funds, independently contact the relative (or parent of the relative) the scam artist is claiming to be (or represent) at a known phone number to verify the details of the story.
  • Scam artist’s payment method of choice is the wire transfer. Any urgent request to wire money should be treated suspiciously.
  • Be aware that fraudsters attempting the Grandparent Scam” may call late at night to confuse potential victims.
  • Consumers who have been victims of this scam should immediately report it to local law enforcement, their state attorney general and NCL’s Fraud Center at

“Consumers with older relatives should be sure to warn them about this scam,” said Breyault. “These fraudsters are cunning and know how to push all the right buttons to separate victims from their money.”

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About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit

NCL issues tips for jolly holiday gift returns – National Consumers League

December 15, 2010

Contact: 202-835-3323,

Washington, DC—With just 10 shopping days left until Christmas, holiday shoppers who are lucky enough to have completed the purchases can relax momentarily before gearing up for the day after Christmas — when stores are flooded with consumers lining up for post-holiday sales and returns. To help ease the burden of returns, the National Consumers League, the nation’s oldest consumer group, offers advice for increasing the chances of successful — and painless — holiday gift returns.

“As surely as people buy holiday gifts, they also return holiday gifts,” said Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of NCL. “Returning merchandise successfully — and getting a refund you’re satisfied with — can pose a few challenges any time of year, but there are a number of things consumers can do before the return, or even before the purchase, to reduce stress, ease the process, and increase the odds of a successful transaction.”

Tips for easy holiday gift returns:

  • Know a store’s return policy before you buy. When you buy, know what you’re getting into — whether the return will be in the form of cash or store credit, at full price, the price that was paid by the purchaser, or some more recent marked-down price. Know whether having the receipt factors into this so you can decide whether politely going back to the gift giver to ask for the receipt is warranted.
  • Keep a paper trail. Go to the trouble of saving receipts from the beginning and keeping them handy in case there’s a need for a return. Having a receipt dramatically increases the chances of an outcome that’s to your liking.
  • As a gift-giver, give items in their full packaging. And as a recipient, don’t open the packaging of anything you know you don’t want to keep, particularly electronics. Policies that don’t allow returns for opened electronics items are common. If they do take it back, they may withhold a certain percentage of the return price and call it a “restocking fee.”
  • Spend your gift cards. They may lose value over time, so look at the fine print and spend them before they expire.
  • Prepare yourself for the worst. Stores have been tracking customers’ return habits for years. Some retailers subscribe to services that keep track of what consumers are purchasing and bringing back in an attempt to curb consumer return fraud — the returning of stolen goods. For honest consumers, this can cause problems, as some stores limit the amount of return activity to a certain number or value of annual merchandise returns. There’s a possibility if you’ve returned a lot of merchandise, you’ll be denied.
  • Be smart. Don’t wear it. Don’t damage it. Increase the chance of having a successful return by taking care of the item on its way back to the store and being a pleasant, polite customer. The post-holidays are stressful enough. Don’t contribute with a less-likely-to-be-helped attitude.

Check out the return policy of an online purchase. You may be able to bring it in-person to the brick-and-mortar store. You may have to pay to send it back, or the vendor may have provided you with a pre-paid postage slip. Or you may not be able to return it at all. Read the delivery information and return instructions for anything you purchase online, particularly if it’s meant to be a gift.


About the National Consumers League

Founded in 1899, the National Consumers League is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Its mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. NCL is a private, nonprofit membership organization. For more information, visit

The Kardashians’ teachable moment – National Consumers League

By John Breyault, Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud

Recently, the Kardashian sisters, of reality TV show fame, released a prepaid debit card to significantly less-than-rave reviews. Why? The card, labeled the “Kardashian Kard,” and marketed to teen viewers of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” was so chock-full of fees that users of the card essentially lost money on the card before they even had a chance to use it, according to a November 26 letter from Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (former NCL Trumpeter Award recipient) to University National Bank, the issuer of the card.

A sampling of the fees levied on the Kardashian Kard included:

  • $7.95 per month maintenance fees
  • $5 minimum deposit
  • $9.95 card purchase fee
  • $1 fee to add value to the card
  • $1.50 fee when the user contacts a live operator
  • Bill pay fee of $2.00 per transaction
  • $9.95 to card replacement fee
  • $6.00 fee to close the account

To their credit, the Kardashians agreed to have the cards removed from the market in response to Blumenthal’s inquiry and the resultant firestorm of negative publicity. However, this episode illustrates the pitfalls for consumers of these prepaid debit cards, one of a fast-growing portion of the consumer credit market. According to the Boston Consulting Group, the U.S. market for branded prepaid cards is expected to nearly quadruple by 2017 to more than $440 billion.

One factor that may be driving the explosive growth of this market is that reloadable prepaid debit cards like the Kardashian Kard are exempted from the gift card rules established by the 2009 CARD Act. For consumers, this means that these cards may have unexpected fees that traditional gift cards do not. In addition, reloadable prepaid cards are not required to provide fraud protection. Whereas with debit cards, the cardholder’s liability for fraudulent purchases is limited to $50 (or $500 if the loss is reported more than two business days after the loss), reloadable prepaid cards offer only voluntary protections provided by the issuing bank.

So how can consumers protect themselves from the hidden fees on these cards?

Our colleagues at Consumers Union have provided a great list of consumer tips regarding prepaid cards like the Kardashian Kard:

  • Consider a regular bank account instead—you get a debit card, a monthly statement, and full consumer protections. Don’t opt in for “overdraft protection” to avoid costly overdraft bank fees.
  • If you decide you want to use a prepaid card, find and read the fee schedule before you buy one. Your cost will vary widely depending on which prepaid card you pick. Make a list of how you will use the card and compare the fees. Try to figure out the costs for two months so that you can get a better idea of the full cost of using the card.
  • Keep track of your balance –you might face high fees for going over. Sign up to receive a written statement in the mail to keep track of your money.
  • Don’t get a prepaid card that comes with a credit line or overdraft loan to avoid overspending and going into debt.
  • Do not use prepaid cards to purchase gas at the pump, for hotels or rental cars. If you do, you may find you will not have access to more funds than the purchase and for a long period of time.
  • See if your card has different fees to choosing signature instead of PIN, or selecting the “credit” option instead of choosing the “debit” option.
  • Don’t rely on a prepaid card to build a credit record because most prepaid card issuers don’t report customer information to the major credit reporting agencies

Genetic testing and consumer rights – National Consumers League

By John Breyault, Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud

It seems that not a day goes by without headlines announcing another scientific breakthrough related to the study of genetics. The science of genetics has undoubtedly played a key role in addressing many of the diseases that afflict millions of consumers. In addition, genetic testing may help consumers understand the diseases they may be predisposed to and take appropriate action.

A natural worry for consumers, however, is how this most personal of information could be misused, particularly by employers to deny them a job or health insurance companies to deny coverage or make coverage more expensive.

Fortunately, consumers have protections. First, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) makes it illegal for health insurance companies to exclude individuals from group coverage due to genetic predisposition to disease. The law also states that genetic predisposition to a disease does not constitute a preexisting condition without a current diagnosis.

Consumers can also rely on the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which prohibits health insurance companies from denying coverage to individuals or raising premiums because of genetic predisposition to disease. The law also prohibits employers from basing decisions on hiring, firing, job placement, or promotions on genetic information.

The Council for Responsible Genetics, one of the leading public interest groups focused on genetics and biotechnology, has developed a very informative Consumer Genetic Privacy Manual, which gives consumers an excellent overview of the issues surrounding genetics and consumers. In particular, consumers concerned about protecting their genetic information from prying eyes should refer to the “Tips for Protecting Your Genetic Privacy” section of the Manual.

Privacy is going to be one of the big issues facing consumer and public interest advocates in the coming year. Perhaps no more personal form of information is a person’s genetic information. It is for this reason that we will be monitoring this issue closely in the months to come.

Every puff you take – National Consumers League

Just one cigarette can be the one that causes a heart attack, warned Surgeon General Regina Benjamin today in her new report on tobacco. For someone with underlying heart disease, one cigarette can be deadly.

According to the new report, even brief exposure to tobacco smoke, from occasional smoking to second-hand smoke, causes immediate harm to the body, damaging cells and inflaming tissue in ways that can lead to serious illness and death. About 443,000 Americans die from tobacco-caused illnesses every year. While the smoking rate has dropped dramatically since 1964, when the first surgeon general’s report declared tobacco deadly, there has been less progress in the last ten years. About one in five Americans, over 40 million adults, still smoke. Additionally, tens of millions more are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke.

While this is the 30th report issued by the nation’s surgeons general to warn the public about tobacco’s risks, it is unusual because it focuses on the biology of how cigarette smoke causes disease, and includes the latest genetic findings to help explain why some people become more addicted than others.

Tobacco companies have designed cigarettes to be more addictive, said the report. Companies have deliberately designed cigarettes and other tobacco products to deliver nicotine more quickly and efficiently than they did years ago. Smoking has been made more pleasant by adding ammonia, which converts nicotine into a form that gets to the brain faster, and sugar and “moisture enhancers,” which reduce the burning sensation.

Check out the consumer version of the report – “How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease:  What It Means To You”.

Advocates on board with ‘Do Not Track’ – National Consumers League

NCL supports the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) proposal to allow consumers to block advertisers from tracking them online. As David Vladeck, the Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection testified on December 2, industry self-regulation has to date failed to adequately protect consumers’ privacy. The FTC has proposed a “uniform and comprehensive consumer choice mechanism” for online behavioral advertising, likely as a feature of Internet browsers. Advocates at the National Consumers League support the FTC’s proposed rule for a simple reason: consumers want to control their environment easily and persistently. These days, the average consumer is barraged online with marketing offers from companies using tracking technology who think they know what their customers want — or are trying to predict it. We agree with the FTC’s position that such technology can and should be implemented in such a way that it does not undermine the advertiser-supported business model that has helped give consumers such a treasure trove of free and low-cost content on the Internet.

The beauty of this so-called “Do Not Track” technology is that doesn’t require maintenance of lists; it just lets online advertisers know not to track you. Experts say the technology for Do Not Track is easily adapted to smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. We agree with Beth Givens at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, who said: “online tracking is inherently offensive to people. The notion that there are electronic eyeballs following you as you surf the Web frankly bothers people.”

NCL will be following closely the debate over FTC’s proposal and the Do Not Track technology in particular.


Meet Henry the Hand – National Consumers League

Are you ready for this year’s National Handwashing Awareness Week? It starts today, and what better time of year than the start of cold and flu season to remind our loved ones how important good hand hygiene is.

Henry the Hand, Champion Handwasher, is the brainchild of Dr. Will Sawyer, “Dr. Will,” a physician who has committed nearly the last two decades of his career promoting the “Four Principles of Hand Awareness” as a method to protect the public from infectious disease and the potential outbreaks. Dr. Will created Henry the Hand to join him in his crusade to educate children and their families about just how much disease can be prevented with clean hands.

Dr. Will’s Four Principles:

  1. Wash your hands when they are dirty and before eating
  2. Do not cough into your hands
  3. Do not sneeze into your hands
  4. Above all, do not put your fingers in your eyes, nose, or mouth

Dr. Will is in good company. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are spreading the word about maintaining good hand hygiene as well.

With old-fashioned soap and water:

  • Wet your hands with clean running water and apply soap. Use warm water if it is available
  • Rub hands together to make a lather and scrub all surfaces
  • Continue rubbing hands for 15-20 seconds. Need a timer? Imagine singing “Happy Birthday” twice through to a friend
  • Rinse hands well under running water
  • Dry your hands using a paper towel or air dryer. If possible, use your paper towel to turn off the faucet
  • Always use soap and water if your hands are visibly dirty

With an alcohol-based hand sanitizer:

  • Apply product to the palm of one hand
  • Rub hands together
  • Rub the product over all surfaces of hands and fingers until hands are dry

NCL statement on passage of Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act – National Consumers League

December 2, 2010

Contact: (202) 835-3323,

Washington, DC—In a vote of 264-157, the U.S. House of Representatives today passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, legislation that reauthorizes the Child Nutrition Act and that will significantly improve the nutritional quality of food served in schools. The bill, which the Senate passed in August, will now be sent to President Obama to be signed into law.

This landmark legislation provides a six-cent per-meal increase for the school lunch program, the biggest funding increase the program has received in decades. Among other measures, it will make healthier choices more available – and unhealthy choices less available – throughout the school day, simplify the process for enabling low-income children to receive the free meals to which they are entitled, and provide technical assistance to school food service providers across the country.

“Ensuring that the meals and snacks our children consume during the school day are healthy ones is crucial in so many ways. For far too many children, the food served at school provides the only healthy meal or meals they eat all day. It is also important to send a consistent message to the children about why we all need to eat nutritious foods. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will go a long way towards creating a healthy environment in all schools and will provide tools to combat the double-edged sword of hunger and obesity,” said Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director.

The National Consumers League joined more than 1,300 other health, education, and anti-hunger groups; First Lady Michelle Obama; and a number of major food companies in supporting passage of the bill.


About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit

Child nutrition reauthorization: A victory for healthier kids – National Consumers League

By Courtney Brein, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

This afternoon, I attended the Enrollment Ceremony for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.  I sat in a beautiful room in the Capitol building and listened to Speaker Nancy Pelosi applaud the efforts of her colleagues, advocates, and the First Lady in pushing for the passage of important improvements to child nutrition programs.  Surrounded by a group of Congressional child nutrition champions – including Representative George Miller (D-CA), Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Representative Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA), Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AK), and Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) – she signed the legislation, completing the final step necessary to send the bill to President Obama’s desk to be signed into law.

Less than 24 hours earlier, I had watched – via C-SPAN live stream – as members of the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act by a vote of 264 to 157.  With one eye fixed to the goings on in the House chamber, I’d kept the other trained on my inbox and the steady stream of optimistic, and then downright festive, emails from child nutrition and anti-hunger advocates sitting in offices throughout D.C. and around the country.  The victorious cries of an even broader array of the bill’s supporters overwhelmed my twitterfeed.

The opportunity to celebrate a landmark achievement for healthier school meals was long overdue.  I began advocating for the passage of a strong reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act when I joined the League in August 2009 – and I came late to the game.  Many of my fellow advocates in the NANA (National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity) Coalition started pushing for the improved nutritional standards and increased reimbursement rate included in this bill before the last child nutrition authorization took place (it happens every five years).  And, more recently, the 2004 authorization – which was set to expire on September 30, 2009 – was extended until September 30, 2010.  While the Senate unanimously passed the bill in August of this year, the House did not take up the issue until the lame duck session following the November election.

Why is this bill so important?  While the bill’s provisions improve the nutrition of food served in schools for all children, they will also greatly help efforts to combat hunger and obesity, which often go hand-in-hand and disproportionately impact low-income kids.  Among other measures, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act does the following:

  • Provides the biggest increase (six cents) in per-meal reimbursement that the National School Lunch Program has received since its inception
  • Simplifies the process for enabling low-income children to receive the free meals to which they are entitled and expands after-school meal access for at-risk kids
  • Makes significant strides in getting junk food out of schools
  • Strengthens school wellness policies
  • Increases funding for farm-to-school and school garden programs

If you support these improvements to child nutrition programs, please take a moment to check out this list of representatives who voted in favor of the bill and, if your rep is on it, send a quick thank-you email!  These 264 members deserve recognition for their leadership in getting this bill to the President’s desk.