This Commission includes 34 members from a wide variety of backgrounds including consumers, business, labor, health care providers, health plans, State and local governments, and health care quality experts. We hope our diversity of interests and backgrounds will make our recommendations more valuable to those who consider them.
This is an appropriate time to reexamine and reconsider the methods by which our Nation and the health care industry establish and protect the rights and identify the responsibilities of those people who use the health care system. The Commission believes it is essential to preserve those elements of the emerging system that have a positive impact on the quality of care as well as the cost and availability of health insurance coverage.
Development of a Consumer Bill of Rights and Responsibilities is an important step forward for all those involved in the health care system. Consumers, health care professionals, administrators of health care facilities, and those who operate health plans will benefit from a clear set of unifying standards. The Consumer Bill of Rights and Responsibilities can help to establish a stronger relationship of trust among consumers, health care professionals, health care institutions, and health plans by helping to sort out the shared responsibilities of each of these participants in a system that promotes quality improvement.
The work of this Commission builds on the efforts of many others. The Commission reviewed dozens of proposals prepared and released by a variety of organizations1 that have addressed the rights, responsibilities, and protection of consumers. We have heard public testimony from dozens of individuals and organizations. We are grateful for their contributions.
The Consumer Bill of Rights and Responsibilities charts a course for the continued enhancement of health systems and processes that serve to protect consumers and ensure quality. While the rights and responsibilities included in this report are intended to apply to all consumers and participants in the health care system, the Commission recognizes that the strength of these protections will grow over time as the capabilities of the health care industry become more sophisticated. Certain portions of the industry will require additional time to make these adjustments, but the Commission intends that the bulk of its recommendations be put in place within the next 3 years.
The Consumer Bill of Rights and Responsibilities was first drafted by the Subcommittee on Consumer Rights, Protections, and Responsibilities. The Subcommittee met in open session on seven separate occasions, and the Commission met six times during that same time period. The Subcommittee considered background papers on each topic, heard public testimony on most topics, and considered two or three drafts of each chapter. At each point in that process, the Subcommittee briefed the full Commission on its work and received feedback on those issues. The Commission also has considered draft chapters and revised drafts reflecting the input of its members. Throughout this process, the Subcommittee and the Commission have operated on a consensus basis that has allowed any member to place an issue before the respective body for consideration. The list of issues was refined to reflect the discussions of the Subcommittee and the Commission. The final product reflects the areas of overall agreement expressed by Commission members.
First, to strengthen consumer confidence by assuring the health care system is fair and responsive to consumers' needs, provides consumers with credible and effective mechanisms to address their concerns, and encourages consumers to take an active role in improving and assuring their health.
Second, to reaffirm the importance of a strong relationship between patients and their health care professionals.
Third, to reaffirm the critical role consumers play in safeguarding their own health by establishing both rights and responsibilities for all participants in improving health status.
The work of the Commission was guided by the following principles:
Quality comes first. The first question we asked ourselves in each circumstance was: Will this improve the quality of care and of the system that delivers that care? Sometimes this led us to reject policy options that we believe could hinder the progress our Nation has made toward a health care system that is focused on improving quality through accountable organized systems.
Preserve what works. There are elements of managed care and of indemnity coverage that must be changed to protect the rights of consumers. But there also are elements of each system that have improved quality and expanded access. We have tried to make sure that we preserve what works while we address areas that can and should be improved.
Costs matter. Although a comprehensive cost-analysis was not performed for this Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, the Commission has sought to balance the need for stronger consumer rights with the need to keep coverage affordable. We recognize that, in some circumstances, rights may create additional costs for employers; health plans; Federal, State, and local governments; and consumers. We also recognize that ultimately consumers can bear these costs in the form of lower wages, higher prices, higher taxes, or reduced benefits in other areas. The Commission believes some components of the Bill of Rights may also enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the health care marketplace. While these efficiencies cannot be well calculated, they may help to offset some cost increases. The Commission has attempted to weigh these factors carefully and support recommendations that may prompt additional spending in cases where such spending may represent an investment in higher quality health care and better health outcomes.
Goals for Consumer Protection in a Quality-Focused Health Care System
A Consumer Bill of Rights and Responsibilities is, by its nature, a snapshot of what is needed at a particular time. The rights enumerated in this report are intended to move the health care system in a direction that is consistent with a system of health care delivery that is focused on obtaining the highest quality and best outcome for consumers and their families. In that light, the Commission has identified a series of goals for the continued reform of the American health care system that will maximize consumer rights in a system that focuses on quality.
Consumers faced with catastrophic illness require assistance. Each year, an estimated 1,500 to 2,500 Americans lose their private health insurance coverage because their medical expenses exceed a lifetime limit included in their health insurance policy. Many of these consumers must exhaust their family savings before becoming eligible for Medicaid or other forms of public assistance. This creates a tremendous hardship on these individuals and their families. Employers, health plans, and others should seriously consider taking steps to ease this burden by (1) eliminating or increasing lifetime limits, (2) expanding the use of high-risk pools to provide immediate coverage at the time consumers reach a lifetime limit, or (3) offering supplemental coverage for workers who wish to increase their limits.
Coverage must be made affordable for all consumers, employers, and other purchasers. The recent moderation in health care costs is promising and has been a contributing factor in the slowing of insurance coverage losses. Employers, health plans, and Federal and State governments should be applauded for their efforts to make coverage more affordable for more Americans. Recent projections for 1998 are less favorable. History makes clear that we cannot assume that costs will remain under control without continued cost containment.
Vulnerable groups require special attention. Many consumers are, for reasons beyond their control, more vulnerable than others to losing their coverage or experiencing significant gaps in their coverage. Individuals with mental or physical disabilities, low-income individuals, children, non-English-speaking consumers, and others require considerable attention by decisionmakers at all levels of the system. Enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, and the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996 were important steps to protect these consumers. Further steps can and should be taken.
Small purchasers need assistance. The owners of small businesses, the self-employed, and those who purchase insurance in the individual market continue to have great difficulty finding and maintaining affordable health care coverage. For a variety of reasons, insurance premiums are higher for small firms relative to the benefits they are able to purchase, and some small firms are unable to purchase insurance at all. In its final report, the Commission intends to offer several recommendations to help ameliorate some of these effects, including voluntary approaches for expanding insurance pools and for adjusting payment systems to reflect the greater risk inherent in small group and individual markets.
Consumer participation in clinical research. The national investment in clinical research has led to breakthrough advances in diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of illness and disability that have lengthened and improved the quality of life for millions of consumers while also achieving significant cost savings to the health care industry. Consumer participation in clinical research through their inclusion in clinical trials is vitally important not only to continued advancement and innovation in medical care but to the often life-threatening nature of the conditions affecting such consumers. The Commission encourages the ongoing efforts by researchers, health plans, employers, public purchasers, and others to resolve impediments to consumer participation in clinical trials and urges participants to reach agreement on an appropriate sharing of costs and responsibilities related to such trials.
The Commission does not, in this report, speak to the issues of implementation or enforcement of the Consumer Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. The rights enumerated in this report can be achieved in several ways including voluntary actions by health plans, purchasers, facilities, and providers; the effects of market forces; accreditation processes; as well as State or Federal legislation or regulation. In its final report to the President, the Commission intends to speak to the optimal methods for implementing and enforcing these rights through one or more of these approaches.
Finally, the Commission believes that the American people should have access to health care that is of high quality, evidence-based, safe, free of errors, and is available to all Americans regardless of ability to pay. Progress, over time, will require changes that must be made prudently, realistically, and with due regard to the needs of all stakeholders in the system. This Consumer Bill of Rights and Responsibilities specifies improvements that we believe are achievable now and in the next several years. It acquires even more meaning in the context of a broader overarching commitment to ensure that full access to high-quality health care will eventually be available to all Americans.