Consumer 9.0: Wishes for better in 2010
A good health-care bill, and a cure for credit-card ills.
Aside from the occasional hedge-fund manager and others who managed to profit from everyone else's losses, I expect we can all agree: 2009 was a rough year.
But this is a season of hope, a good time to offer my New Year's Wish List for changes in the marketplace. If you'd like to share items from your own list, please e-mail or call me with your suggestions.
Health-care reform, at last. With life-and-death issues and a sixth of the U.S. economy at stake, it's probably no wonder that the health-care fight has turned into one of the most rancorous, partisan battles in memory.
Last week, when Senate Democrats needed their entire 60-member caucus to vote to end debate because Republicans were united in opposition, one GOP senator seemed to be praying for a Democratic colleague to meet misfortune and not show up.
"Confederate Yankee" Bob Owens, a conservative blogger, made the wish explicit, suggesting that it was time for West Virginia's 92-year-old Robert Byrd to "do the right thing, and expire." Suffice it to say that public discourse has sunk to a low ebb.
I'm not wishing for a perfect bill, partly because I know it's impossible to define one. Every other advanced nation provides its citizens with universal health care, but they do so in different ways, and each model has its flaws.
My wish is for a bill that moves us in the same direction, and that protects as many people as possible from facing unaffordable premiums - Pennsylvania's have been rising about 10 percent a year - and from a lack of treatment or economic ruin if a health disaster strikes.
And I also wish that whatever bill passes, it ultimately illustrates the wisdom attributed to German statesman Otto von Bismarck: "If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made." I'm really looking forward to getting out of the sausage factory.
An end to banking gotchas. We've come a long way in the last year, as federal regulators and Congress finally labeled some of the worst practices of credit-card issuers unfair and deceptive. But we still have a long way to go.
In a recent column, I described how Citibank was moving responsible customers to an "ordinary" rate of 29.99 percent while offering a rebate of 10 percentage points to those who continually pay on time - a devilishly ingenious way around the new law's limits on when issuers can apply penalty rates to existing balances. If Citibank customers slip up, guess what? They're already at the equivalent of a penalty rate.
Nor are credit cards the only banking product littered with consumer traps, as some debit-card users have discovered when they lose track of their checking balances and continue to use a Visa or MasterCard debit card.
In search of fees, banks are all too willing to approve their purchases when they're in the red, and then charge them $35 or more for the courtesy. Customers are more likely to see such fees as a disproportionate slap in the face.
That's certainly how Annmarie McHugh views them.
McHugh, 43, a Conshohocken talent agent, sent me a Citizens Bank statement last week showing how she'd apparently been charged nearly $550 for 14 debit-card overdrafts - including for small purchases such as a visit to Starbucks - after she and her boyfriend briefly miscommunicated about his plan to deposit his share of their rent.
If the bank had reversed the order in which it paid the items, McHugh would have been charged for a single overdraft or bounced check. Instead, the fees sank her budget for Christmas gifts.
The Federal Reserve has set rules that, come July, will help customers who opt out of such overdraft "protection," and ensure that all customers will have the option. But for those who don't opt out, the new rules won't stop the potential for huge fees.
My wish: that Congress listen to customers, not just to bankers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and enact the proposed Consumer Financial Products Agency, to help ensure that the consumer's perspective gets more central consideration in bank oversight. It shouldn't take years to see unfair and deceptive tactics for what they are.
More TV and Internet competition. There are both good and worrisome signs here.
Philadelphia-area sports fans who consider themselves captive customers of Comcast are slowly getting access to Verizon's FiOS TV, which the Philadelphia cable giant has allowed to carry Comcast SportsNet, the primary source of most Phillies, Flyers, and 76ers telecasts.
But the big breakthrough may come soon from the Federal Communications Commission, which is considering a proposal to finally require Comcast to share SportsNet with satellite-TV providers.
My wish: That the FCC not back down, so that the next time I choose Comcast as my cable provider, I really have a choice, and that regulators and lawmakers stay vigilant about the marketplace risks created when those who own the delivery pipes also control the content.
More compassion and charity. OK, so this isn't an obvious consumer issue. But at a time of double-digit joblessness and economic anxiety, my wish is that those of us who can afford cable TV remember how important it is to share the bounty with which we're blessed.
A recent call from the Rev. David Brown, of Ambler, reminded me that there's a tough challenge for the generous: how to tell charities apart, so your dollars are put to the best use.
There are great resources online, including the American Institute of Philanthropy's www.charitywatch.org, the BBB Wise Giving Alliance's www.give.org, www.charitynavigator.org, and www.guidestar.org.
For information on military relief societies, go to www.militaryhomefront.dod.mil.