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A year of progress on consumer issues

Tough for many consumers, it also brought progress on financial protection, product safety and healthcare reform

December 27, 2009|David Lazarus

This year was a total drag for consumers. Many of us lost our jobs, homes were foreclosed upon, medical bills piled up, recession-weary families scraped by month to month.

But it was also an extraordinary year for consumers, with significant progress made in making banks play more fairly, reforming the healthcare system and improving product safety.

We may not get everything that we want. But the mere fact that all these things have gotten so much high-profile attention, and that at least a modicum of change seems likely across the board, underlines consumers' higher standing in public policy.

"It's a breath of fresh air to be playing offense instead of defense," said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a watchdog organization.

Let's take a look at where things stand on three of the leading issues topping consumers' to-do lists:

Big bad banks

The big win for consumers on the financial front this year was a revamping of credit card rules that introduce some much-needed transparency and fairness to the lending market.

The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act, which President Obama signed into law in May, requires card issuers to give at least 45 days' notice of any significant change to their offerings, and to ensure that cardholders have at least 21 days to pay their bills each month.

It also prevents issuers from boosting interest rates in the first year after an account is opened and blocks banks from raising rates on existing balances.

This is a very big deal. But two other significant changes are still on the drawing board.

One is legislation that would crack down on banks' overdraft charges, including the practice of signing up customers for protection without first asking permission and covering overdrawn payments in ways that ensure the most charges.

It's estimated that overdraft fees will total at least $38 billion this year, more than double what banks pocketed from such charges a decade ago.

The other pending change, and the one that's drawn the greatest opposition from financial-services companies, is Obama's call for creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

Such an entity is needed, the president and Democratic lawmakers say, to ensure that holders of various bank loans, including credit cards and mortgages, are safeguarded from potentially abusive and deceptive industry practices.

Banking industry lobbyists have been working overtime to kill the proposal, which they say would muddle the marketplace and be detrimental to consumers.

"We don't know yet whether very powerful special interests will be able to stop the reform," said Travis Plunkett, legislative director for the Consumer Federation of America. "A lot is in the works, but nothing's done yet."

Here's all you need to know about a Consumer Financial Protection Agency: If banks keep their noses clean and treat customers fairly, they have nothing to worry about.

So why are they fighting the proposal so fiercely?

Healthcare

The jury's still out. After months of heated negotiations, the Senate on Thursday passed its reform bill. But substantial differences remain between the House and Senate versions that will have to be squared next year.

We may end up with a comprehensive, turbocharged overhaul of the healthcare system and something approaching universal coverage. Or we may end up with table scraps.

The important thing is that this is the furthest we've gotten on healthcare reform in decades, and the issue clearly isn't going away (like, say, Social Security reform, which has all but vanished from the legislative horizon).

"It sounds trite to say it, but we've come a long way, baby," said Ron Pollack, executive director of FamiliesUSA, a healthcare advocacy group. "I feel confident that there will be changes."

The reason he and others (myself included) believe that some sort of reform is inevitable is that everyone -- and I mean everyone -- agrees our current system is broken. That's not the problem. The problem is the fix.

Obama wants a big-picture remedy that addresses the fundamental troubles -- the more than 46 million people uninsured, skyrocketing costs, market inefficiencies.

Conservative-minded critics of the president's plan espouse more modest changes that place a greater emphasis on market forces and personal responsibility, and that largely maintain the status quo.

I'm with the president on this one, but I won't be disappointed if we have to settle, at least for now, on some incremental step that at least ends the practice of private insurers denying coverage to people with medical problems or charging exorbitant rates to sick people.

Would a public insurance plan guarantee that more people are covered and make private insurers more competitive? I think so, and I think we'll get there eventually. But I don't think we should consider the reform process a failure if we have to revisit that goal another day.

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