ACS spends big money to highlight healthcare system deficiencies

Oncology NEWS International Vol 17 No 10, Volume 17, Issue 10

With the race for the presidency in full swing, the American Cancer Society (ACS) is taking a leading role in increasing the nation’s focus on the country’s ailing health care system.

ABSTRACT: Billion dollar cancer advocacy behemoth calls for major overhaul of insurance coverage.

With the race for the presidency in full swing, the American Cancer Society (ACS) is taking a leading role in increasing the nation’s focus on the country’s ailing health care system.

Last fall, the organization and its advocacy partner the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) initiated a public education campaign to highlight the dangers of inadequate (or nonexistent) health insurance and engage policymakers at the state and federal level on the need to put health care reform at the top of the political agenda.

The “ACS CAN Fight Back Express” bus has been on a nationwide tour to raise awareness about the need for change, and to educate policymakers on the ways in which the system needs to change and why. Additionally, the Society spent $15 million this year on a series of commercials which have run on major news networks and recently during local telecasts of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, attempting to convey the severity of the health care system’s failures. With a mission to prevent cancer, save lives, and diminish suffering from cancer, the ACS makes the case that the nation’s progress in the fight is insufficient to achieve its goals.

Not up to the challenge

The ACS cites a lack of early detection as one of the major reasons that cancer mortality rates have not dropped as quickly as desired over the past few years. Given that rates of early detection of malignancies are higher for the insured than the uninsured, the ACS claims that a faulty healthcare system contributes to the slowed progress.1

Approximately 47 million Americans, or nearly 16% of the population, are uninsured. Roughly one in every 10 individuals battling cancer is among the uninsured forced to bear the enormous costs alone.1 As noted in one poignant commercial, this burden can often drive a family into considerable debt.

ACS CEO John Seffrin, PhD, argues that high-quality care for individuals battling cancer, as well as meaningful progress in cancer treatment, is realistic. However, advancement is limited by an inextricable link to a healthcare system which is “not up to this challenge.”2

A call for action

Most Americans will agree that the US healthcare system is economically flawed. Costs are high, rising, and unsustainable, while there is little hope for major improvement without equivalently major change. In a statement issued to legislators and the media, the ACS suggests that the system “must be reoriented to emphasize wellness and healthy outcomes” through redesigned health insurance plans and realistic long-term financing.3

The organization calls for a system providing meaningful public or private health insurance for all individuals. It defines “meaningful health insurance” through the “4 As” (see Table).

Additionally, the system should not allow for “cherry picking,” or discrimination among applicants by insurers. In order for a new system to work, incentives need to be restructured to encourage healthy behavior and early detection of cancer and other serious medical conditions. With these stipulations in mind, the ACS proposes the implementation of a research program to look further into approaches to contain costs and increase the value of a healthcare program.4

A misguided campaign?

Some have criticized ACS for stepping outside of its central mission with this expensive political commentary, arguing that the advertising dollars would have been better spent in a more traditional campaign (encouraging healthy diets, exercise, smoking prevention and cessation, preventive cancer screening).

Nevertheless, as Dr. Seffrin pointed out, the battle against cancer cannot continue without a healthcare system that is equipped to meet present and future challenges.2 To that end, this call for action does indeed fit within its mission of eliminating and diminishing suffering from cancer. The organization should not be criticized for this nonpartisan attempt to draw attention to an issue that cannot wait another 4 or 8 years to be solved.

Further, the group maintains that its understanding of the high costs and complex needs of treating cancer places it in a unique position to spearhead this action. Healthcare costs are rising for patients and families with cancer due to innovative, but expensive, targeted oncology therapies and the burden of increased co-payments (often 20% to 33%) required by some Medicare and private insurance plans for these costly treatment options. Therefore, the ACS understands the failings of the current healthcare system through the lens of cancer patients’ extreme healthcare needs, which amounted to $219.2 billion last year.5

Other groups, such as the American Medical Association, have also chimed in to encourage healthcare reform. But the ACS stands out as a particularly strong voice thanks, in no small part, to its nearly billion dollars a year in revenue.6

The ACS should be applauded for prioritizing healthcare reform and bringing cancer care to the attention of the next administration. Presidential hopefuls Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama have promised to wage war against cancer.7

Revamping or even amending our healthcare systems is a difficult yet crucial challenge. Only time will tell if these challenges will be successfully met to more effectively provide care for those who need it most: The burden of cancer will affect approximately 1 in 3 women and nearly 1 in 2 men over their respective lifetimes.8



1.  Sack, Kevin.  “Cancer Society Focuses Its Ads on the Uninsured,” New York Times, August 31, 2007.

2.  Dr. John Seffrin, Statement to ACS Board of Directors, January 2006.

3.  “Statement of Principles On the Role and Consideration of Costs in Health Care Treatment and Coverage,” ACS, February 19, 2008.

4.  “Statement of Principles.” ACS, March 30, 2007.

5. “Costs of Cancer,” American Cancer Society, April 7, 2008.

6.  “ACS Fact Sheet,” ACS, March 4, 2008.

7.  Charles, Deborah, “McCain and Obama on same side in US war on cancer.” Reuters, September 10, 2008.

8. Cancer Facts & Figures 2008, American Cancer Society, 2008.