Consumer advocate and Oak Park resident Jon Yates helps readers stand up for themselves

Problem-solver

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By John Rice

Contributing reporter

"Everyday slights eat away at people," says Tribune columnist Jon Yates. "Sometimes it's easier to forget about it than fight the battle. But when you stand up for yourself, you're standing up for others. We're all in this together."

Yates, an Oak Park resident, has been writing the consumer-advocate column "What's Your Problem?" since 2005. Now he's come out with a book by the same title. It's filled with practical advice on how readers can become their own problem-solvers.

The Iowa native first got into journalism with the quaint notion that he might be able to help people, but he admits consumer activism kind of "goes against my nature."

"I was shy," he says. "I never spoke up in class. Writing the column has really helped me get out of my shell. My approach is to start off nice. If nice doesn't work, I give 'em hell. I'm not super-aggressive by nature, but it's amazing what you can accomplish by asserting yourself."

Each week, Yates receives about 200 pleas for help. "Some are shocking, some are quirky and others fit universal themes." Dissatisfaction with contractors, for example, is a category unto itself.

"I contact the complainer, get documented proof of their problem and go to the company they're complaining about. They're often unaware of what they did."

The threat of bad publicity from the Tribune usually suffices to have the situation rectified. Still, there are problems that even Yates can't solve.

"I print the ones I can't help. Readers step up with money, legal services. Many get resolved by other readers."

His new book, What's Your Problem? takes this process to another level by instructing the reader on how to become self-reliant in conducting their own consumer battles. There is certainly plenty of need for these skills.

"There are so many sad stories," Yates says. "The ones in my column are just the tip of the iceberg." Many of his correspondents are simply "upset they're not being listened to. Sometimes the money doesn't count. They're seeking a sense of justice."

What's Your Problem? offers hope to these sufferers. It provides tips on how to resolve billing problems, disputes with utilities and medical insurance denials.

"Threatening to leave and go to another provider is the best tool you have," Yates said. The book also instructs consumers on how to find allies. "Every industry has watchdogs who can advocate on your behalf. There are state, federal and local agencies that regulate airlines, banks, funeral homes and car dealerships."

Ames to Palm Springs to Oak Park

Yates grew up in Ames, Iowa. His father was a history teacher and his mother taught English. He always wanted to become a writer, especially after his mother landed a job as sports editor for a local newspaper.

"I was a huge fan of the Iowa State Cyclones," he recalls, "and I saw my mother get access to all my athletic heroes."

He began his own journalism career working for his high school newspaper and went on to write for his college paper at the University of Iowa, where he majored in journalism and history.

After graduation, he landed a job as a reporter for the Iowa City Press. He spent two years covering every beat on the local scene before moving to the Palm Springs Desert Sun newspaper in California.

"It was culture shock for me, coming from Iowa," said Yates, who as a political reporter covered the reelection campaign of the late Sonny Bono. He then moved to Nashville for four years and worked as a police reporter. Seven years ago, Yates landed his dream job of writing for the Chicago Tribune. His wife, Trine Tsouderos, also works at the Tribune Tower as a science and medical reporter. They have two children, Celia, 6, and Quinn, 3.

"We love living in Oak Park," he said. "It's ideal for a young family. It has good schools and it's close to downtown." They commute to their jobs using the Blue Line.

Yates started at the Tribune as a general assignment reporter. In 2005, the newspaper launched the "What's Your Problem?" column. "The Tribune wanted to create a vehicle for readers to have access to the paper," he said, "where we could help people on an individual basis."

"What's Your Problem?" appeared twice a week at first, later expanded to three days and finally five times a week. Yates found this schedule too demanding so the column was cut back to three times a week.

Michael Lev, associate managing editor of the newspaper's business section, says, "Jon's column originally was in the Metro section, but it fits better in business because it is consumer-driven. He helps individuals but also provides insight into how the world works and how business works. Jon covers really satisfying stories that give our readers important lessons in protecting themselves. It's very empowering."

Yates has a large following of loyal readers, Lev noted, and hundreds of them have come to Tribune events to hear him speak. Like another mild-mannered reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper, Yates is a "Man of Steel" when it comes to tracking down people who have wronged one of his readers.

"He's a really good reporter," Lev said, "smart, aggressive and unafraid. He's fair to everyone, including bureaucrats. Jon is not just a good listener to people who are at their wits' end; he gets to the person who can fix the problem. He writes a very popular, well-read column."

Life-and-death situations

While some of the problems Yates solves are bureaucrats' bungles, others deal with life-and-death issues. Colleen Reid, a savvy attorney who has worked in the insurance arena for 25 years, had payment denied for a treatment she needed for ovarian cancer. Reid sent a well-crafted letter to United Healthcare appealing their decision. When this failed, she turned to Yates.

"I sent an email to Jon on a Tuesday afternoon and he called me back Wednesday during my treatment. I immediately had confidence in Jon. I knew that United Healthcare would not want a public relations black eye."

At issue was the insurer's refusal to pay for her treatments that combined injections of Avastin and Cytoxin. Each administration of these drugs cost $16,000 but were well worth it.

"In cancer treatment it's tricky to find a medication that works and is still tolerable," Reid said. The results of the regimen were spectacular as Reid's cancer antigens dropped dramatically. However, the company denied payment on the basis the treatment was "experimental."

Yates was successful in showing that the treatment had been recommended by two leading cancer treatment facilities and United Healthcare reversed their decision. Although Reid has never met Yates, she considers him to be "a very kind and thoughtful person. He still sends me emails asking about my health."

Making a difference

Reid's case was especially dire but since the start of the recession, Yates has detected a "greater level of desperation" among his readers. "The tone is a little different. A lot more people are living on the edge." Yates advocates for those seeking home loan modifications, seniors who have been mistreated by contractors and those with "phone bills larded-up with charges."

"I help people on an individual basis," he says. "I get to do something that makes a difference. I've helped people get their citizenship. I've gone to their swearing-in ceremony. It sticks with you forever."

He still remembers the first complaint he resolved — a Lincoln Park resident with a backyard overrun by rats from a neighboring restaurant.

"The city wouldn't help at first," he recalled. Thanks to Yates' involvement, the city replaced the restaurant's trash cans and baited traps. "Six years later, they're still going out there when necessary."

In the book What's Your Problem? Yates has chapters on everything from "Saying No to Nigerian Royalty and Other Scams" to "Planning a Funeral without Being Exploited." It also instructs readers on "Writing a Successful Complaint Letter," "Protecting Your Identity," and "Troubleshooting Your Travels."

Yates admits that once, during an emergency, he didn't follow his own advice and check out a plumber prior to hiring him. When he later brought in a reputable plumber, he told Yates that the "emergency plumber" had accomplished nothing during the two hours he spent in the soggy basement. Even a mild-mannered "Man of Steel" like Yates can get burned from time to time.

During his years of fielding complaints, he has learned, "There are plenty of really great companies out there, but we have to use our collective knowledge to avoid the bad ones."

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