ATLANTA — The American Cancer Society this week will take its biggest step ever into the politics of health care reform, spending $15 million in advertising on behalf of Americans with too little health insurance or none at all.
The cancer society — the nation’s richest health charity, in both donations and volunteers — traditionally focuses its advertising on encouraging Americans to quit smoking or get a screening test.
But this year’s campaign will feature television commercials that portray the challenges of uninsured and underinsured cancer patients, accompanied by a call for people to do something about it.
The change comes after cancer society officials concluded that insurance-related problems have emerged as one of the largest obstacles in their goal to cut cancer death rates by 50 percent and incidence rates by 25 percent from 1990 to 2015.
“We’re not going to meet our goals if the health care system remains unfixed,” said John Seffrin, the cancer society’s chief executive.
Starting today, three commercials on network and cable channels will run until Thanksgiving. Ads will be placed in magazines and on Web sites as well.
The cancer society is not endorsing any particular reform plan or candidate. Even so, it’s an unusually pointed campaign for the philanthropy and for organizations like it.
The American Heart Association’s chief executive, M. Cass Wheeler, envied the group’s resources and applauded their new campaign.
“Heart and stroke patients are going to benefit from the good this advertising campaign is going to do,” Mr. Wheeler said. His organization spends $10 million each year on advertising, and focuses it on exercise and other prevention measures for patients.
The Atlanta-based cancer society, with 2006 revenues of $1 billion, has been stepping up its political activity in recent years.
In 2001, it formed a sister organization, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ASC CAN), to lobby and work on government health policy. ASC CAN pushed for legislation that would give the Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco, and last year fought a bill that would have enabled small businesses to form health insurance pools across state lines without guaranteeing coverage of certain cancer tests.
Now it has putting together petitions and voter guides, organizing political forums and rallies and in May will begin a nationwide bus tour promoting health care reform.
Despite the fact that many cancer patients are 65 and older and are covered by the federal Medicare program, cancer society officials estimate that at least 55,000 of the 1.4 million people diagnosed with cancer each year have no health insurance.
Hundreds of thousands of others have coverage but end up financially distressed by uncovered bills, they say.