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Profile: Consumers Union

Consumers Union was a participant or observer in the following events:

Verizon gives the NSA access from within its facilities.Verizon gives the NSA access from within its facilities. [Source: ReallyNews.com]AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth all cooperate with the NSA in monitoring US citizens’ phone and Internet communications (see October 2001). Qwest, however, refuses to cooperate (see February 27, 2001). Qwest officials are unsure that it is legal to hand over customer information to the government without court warrants. The firm’s refusal to participate in the program leaves a gaping hole in the NSA’s database, with the NSA only getting partial coverage of US citizens in the West and Northwest. Until recently, AT&T and other phone companies have routinely insisted on court warrants before turning over call data to government agencies, protocols growing out of the historical concerns of the Bell Telephone system for customer service and privacy. Gene Kimmelman of the Consumers Union will say in 2006 that such insistence on court warrants was a bedrock principle of the Bell systems. “No court order, no customer information—period.” he says. “That’s how it was for decades.” The Bell system was also concerned with following the law, specifically the Communications Act of 1934, which prohibits telephone companies from giving out such information without court orders. President Bush and other government officials will later say that his 2002 executive order allowing the NSA to wiretap American phones without warrants (see Early 2002) gives the telephone companies legal cover, but many legal experts and civil liberties groups disagree. After 9/11, the NSA approaches the four companies with offers to pay for US citizens’ call histories and for updates, which would allow the agency to track citizens’ phone habits. Three of the four agree to the NSA proposal, but again Qwest does not. An AT&T spokesman will say in May 2006, “We do not comment on matters of national security, except to say that we only assist law enforcement and government agencies charged with protecting national security in strict accordance with the law.” BellSouth will say that the company “does not provide any confidential customer information to the NSA or any governmental agency without proper legal authority.” Verizon will add that the company acts “in full compliance with the law and we are committed to safeguarding our customers’ privacy.” Neither AT&T nor Qwest will comment at all. [USA Today, 5/11/2006] The NSA asks Qwest to install monitoring equipment on its “Class 5” switching facilities, which monitor the most localized calls as well as some international traffic. The NSA claims it will only single out foreigners on Qwest’s network. In 2006, a government official will say that the CEO of Qwest, Joe Nacchio, misunderstood what the agency was asking. [New York Times, 12/16/2007]
Qwest Refuses to Cooperate - In 2006, sources will recall that at the time of the NSA requests, Nacchio is so disturbed by the idea of the NSA wiretapping phones without warrants, and is so unsure of what information would be collected and how it might be used, that he decides the company will not cooperate. The NSA tells Qwest and the other companies that not only would it compile and maintain data on US citizens’ phone habits, but it may well share that information with other US government agencies, including the CIA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the FBI. Indeed, the NSA shares what it calls “product” with other intelligence agencies, and perhaps with other governmental agencies. After Nacchio decides not to comply with the NSA’s request, the agency begins pressuring the firm, accusing it of threatening national security and implying that Qwest might not be eligible for future governmental contracts. When Qwest asks the NSA to take its proposal to the FISA Court (FISC), the agency refuses, making Qwest that much more dubious about the NSA operation, especially when NSA lawyers say they won’t take the proposal to FISC because that court “might not agree with them.” The NSA also refuses to ask for authorization from the attorney general’s office. Nacchio will leave Qwest under fire for allegedly misleading shareholders about the company’s financial prospects, but his successor, Richard Notebaert, continues to refuse to cooperate with the NSA. [USA Today, 5/11/2006; USA Today, 5/11/2006] Interestingly, by 2004 the Federal Communications Commission will list Qwest and Verizon as essentially the same company. [Federal Communications Commission, 12/10/2004]
Other Firms Deny Participation - In May 2006, after USA Today reports on the telecom firms’ participation in the surveillance (see May 11, 2006), both Verizon and BellSouth will deny providing the NSA with data on their customers, though they have previously acknowledged their cooperation (see February 5, 2006). A BellSouth spokesman will say, somewhat ingenuously, “We’re not aware of any database that NSA has, so we’re not aware of our customer information being there at all.” And Verizon conspicuously fails to mention possible data from MCI, the long-distance provider it has recently bought. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) will say of the various companies’ participations, “The thing that concerns me is some [companies] said yes and some said no” when asked to participate. “If the government really thought this was legal and necessary, why let some say yes and some say no? It’s either legal and necessary, or it’s not.” [USA Today, 5/16/2006]

Entity Tags: Patrick J. Leahy, Qwest, Richard Notebaert, Verizon Communications, National Security Agency, USA Today, George W. Bush, Joe Nacchio, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, BellSouth, Central Intelligence Agency, AT&T, Consumers Union, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Gene Kimmelman, Federal Communications Commission

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who co-authored the provision in the House health care reform legislation mandating that Medicare would pay for periodic “end-of-life” counseling sessions between patients and doctors, releases a fact sheet called “Myth vs. Fact: Advance Planning Consultations in HR 3200” (see November 23, 2008, January 27, 2009, February 9, 2009, February 11, 2009, February 18, 2009, May 13, 2009, June 24, 2009, June 25, 2009, July 10, 2009, July 16, 2009, July 17, 2009, July 21, 2009, July 23, 2009, July 23, 2009, July 23, 2009, July 23-24, 2009, July 24, 2009, July 28, 2009, July 28, 2009, July 28, 2009, and July 31, 2009 - August 12, 2009). Blumenauer writes: “Few areas are more vital for honest discussion and careful consideration than end-of-life care for America’s seniors. Unfortunately, families often do not know their loved ones’ preferences for end-of-life care and are not confronted with these difficult decisions until an emergency arises. This leaves spouses, sons, daughters, and grandchildren unprepared; as a result families struggle to make decisions in the midst of turmoil. The House health care legislation includes a provision (Sec. 1233) that provides seniors with better care as they grapple with these hard questions. This provision extends Medicare coverage to cover the cost of patients voluntarily speaking with their doctors about their values and preferences regarding end-of-life care. These are deeply personal decisions that take thoughtful consideration, and it is only appropriate that doctors be compensated for their time.” He then corrects three “myths” surrounding the provision:
bullet Myth: Patients will be forced to have this consultation once every five years. In reality, he writes, such advance planning consultations are entirely voluntary; the provision mandates that Medicare will pay for one such consultation every five years if the patient chooses. Under certain circumstances, Medicare will pay for more frequent consultations.
bullet Myth: Patients will be forced to sign an advance care directive (or living will). Blumenauer writes that no such mandate exists in the legislation, or is being contemplated. Like the advance planning consultations, living wills are entirely voluntary.
bullet Myth: Patients will have to see a health care professional chosen by the government. The government will not choose any health care professionals for anyone. If a patient chooses to have an advance planning consultation, it will be with a doctor of his or her choosing.
Blumenauer notes that the following organizations have endorsed his provision: the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, the American College of Physicians, the American Hospice Foundation, the Center to Advance Palliative Care, Consumers Union, Gundersen Lutheran Health System, the Hospice and Palliative Nursing Association, Medicare Rights Center, the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, the National Palliative Care Research Center, Providence Health and Services, and the Supportive Care Coalition. [US House of Representatives, 7/2009 pdf file; Politico, 7/28/2009]

A poll by the nonpartisan Consumers Union finds that many Americans are having so much difficulty affording their medical care that they routinely put off doctors’ visits, forego medical tests, forego medical procedures, skip filling prescriptions, and take expired medications to save money and limit expenses. According to the poll, 51 percent of Americans have “faced difficult health care choices in the past year,” and 25 percent cannot afford their medical bills or their medications. Another poll, by Ipsos and McClatchy News, finds that 53 percent of Americans favor a public health insurance plan “to make sure all Americans have access to quality health care,” and 42 percent believe that sufficient changes could occur without a public plan. The Consumers Union poll finds that 28 percent of Americans have either endured cutbacks in their medical coverage or lost their coverage entirely in 2008 alone, with the trend widespread among differing income groups. Around 66 percent of respondents who make below $50,000 a year say they have cut back on their health care due to costs. [Consumers Union, 10/5/2009; McClatchy News, 10/7/2009]

Entity Tags: Ipsos, McClatchy News, Consumers Union

Timeline Tags: US Health Care

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