”I have the distinct honor of introducing a great American who has for all of his life worked for those who are in need and fought for the middle class,” Barry Rand, chief executive officer of AARP, said as he introduced Vice President Joe Biden last Thursday in Alexandria, Virginia.
Rand was addressing an audience of mostly older Americans, some adorned with red vests stamped with the AARP logo, about the urgent need for health care legislation. The gathering, which also included Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and White House Health czar Nancy-Ann DeParle, was billed as a meeting of Biden’s “Middle Class Task Force.”
After taking the lectern, Biden expressed delight at having the backing of AARP.
“I was a United States Senator since I was 29 years old, my experience is I’ve never lost with the AARP behind me,” he boasted.
The event was just the latest sign of the strong ties that the nation’s largest organization of older Americans has forged with the Obama administration as part of its push to overhaul America’s health care system.
“Together, we will complete the mission for comprehensive health care reform,” Rand declared at a recent White House event to announce a deal between AARP and the pharmaceutical industry. “Thank you for your leadership on this issue, Mr. President.”
During the current debate, AARP has funded ads pushing for health care legislation and hosted town-hall style events throughout the country. It has set up a website called “Health Action Now,” which urges visitors to sign a petition, imploring, “President Obama has promised health reform before the end of the year — but we need to make sure that Congress follows through.” The site even has a feature in which users enter their phone number, wait for their phone to ring, and are automatically connected to their member of Congress, so that they can deliver AARP’s message that “the time for action is now.”
Of course, with one party controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, “action now” effectively means supporting Democratic legislation.
AARP aims to represent the interests of Americans over 50 years old. In the 2008 presidential election, the 45 to 64 age group split their votes nearly evenly, 50 percent for Obama and 49 percent for McCain, while McCain comfortably beat Obama in the over-65 age group, 53 percent to 45 percent. Clearly, AARP includes Republicans among its 40 million members, many of whom join the group to purchase insurance or to enjoy discounts. But the group routinely uses its money and influence to promote policies that would result in higher taxes and a larger role for government.
Though AARP bills itself as nonpartisan, its support for the current administration’s policies stands in stark contrast to the aggressive campaign it waged to help kill President Bush’s drive to reform Social Security in 2005. AARP’s backing of Obama’s health care agenda has not been deterred even though he has proposed paying for universal health care, in part, with $622 billion in Medicare cuts over 10 years.
Rand, who took the helm at AARP in March, was a strong backer of Obama in last year’s election, having contributed a total of $8,900 to the campaign’s various committees.
The seniors’ group does not make campaign contributions, but at the request of TAS, the Center for Responsive Politics analyzed federal election data of those who listed themselves as employees of AARP. While the actual dollar figures involved are low and there were only 123 such records available for the 2008 election cycle, the partisan breakdown was lopsided.
The analysis found that individuals linked to AARP gave $48,801 to Democratic candidates, party committees, and leadership PACs, compared with only $5,121 to Republicans — meaning more than 90 percent of the money went to Democrats. (These figures do not include those AARP employees who may have contributed but did not identify their employer, nor did they include Rand, who did not work for the group until this year.)
When contacted for this article, representatives for AARP pushed back strongly against the insinuation that they were a partisan group, and defended the rationale for their stances in support of the Obama administration.
“The President has proposed savings in Medicare and we have basically been in favor of trying to reduce the cost of Medicare by reducing waste and fraud and finding efficiencies,” said David Certner, director of legislative policy at AARP. “That’s been our goal in this whole context, to see if we can come up with ways to lower the cost of Medicare, which will help make the program strong and still protect our beneficiaries from higher costs, copays, premiums, deductibles and so forth.”
He added that a major goal for AARP is to make sure that any reform eliminates the so-called “donut hole,” which is a gap in subsidies under the Medicare prescription drug plan.
The Medicare proposals outlined by the Obama administration include reducing hospital subsidies, slashing payments to private insurers as part of the Medicare Advantage program, and eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse.
In 2006, when Bush proposed far smaller Medicare cuts of $105 billion over 10 years, USA Today quoted an AARP spokesman as saying, “The Congress, in an election year, is not going to pass these disastrous provisions.”
But Certner said that was different. “We oppose across-the-board type cuts,” he explained. “These are cuts that don’t really look at trying to get efficiencies or savings that make sense, they just whack across-the-board and can harm the health care system.”
Conservatives have argued that the Obama administration’s proposal to employ “comparative effectiveness research” will open the door for rationing care in the United States as such research has done in government-run health care systems. In Britain, for instance, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) places a monetary value on life and allocates health care resources accordingly. Such a system tends to disproportionately affect elderly patients who are nearing the end of their days. Certner said it was wrong to argue that Obama is proposing something similar for the U.S.
“You’ve just described comparative effectiveness research in an English way,” he responded. “I think we’re talking about a different kind of understanding of what we need to do in our system, which is evidence-based research, which is to do more research on what drugs and procedures work best, and then be able to give that research to doctors and patients so they can make the best choices for themselves.”
Jim Dau, an AARP spokesman, added: “This is really about providing doctors and patients about the best possible tools. It just seems like a no-brainer.”
Asked to name a single initiative on which AARP has opposed the Obama administration, both Dau and Certner drew a blank, before rejecting the premise of the question.
“It’s a little premature for that question just yet,” Certner said, stressing that the administration was still in its infancy and that no final health care legislation that can be tied to Obama yet exists. The group, did, however, criticize the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) bill for language that would prolong the development of generic alternatives to costly biologic drugs, Certner noted.
While AARP representatives argue that the organization just wants what’s best for its members, philosophically, the group’s tendency is to support legislation that would expand the role of the federal government.
In making the case that AARP is truly nonpartisan, representatives noted that they were attacked by liberals for cooperating with the Bush administration on the Medicare prescription drug bill. But that was an example of a Republican president pushing the largest expansion of entitlements since the Great Society.
While AARP is generally supportive of the current effort to increase government’s role in health care, representatives swept aside many small-government alternative proposals as wrong-headed and insufficient.
Asked about proposals to allow individuals to purchase insurance across state lines, which would make it easier for Americans to obtain more modest health insurance coverage with lower premiums, Certner argued, “The problem is that you’d have all the regulation at the state level undone, and everybody could get cheap and under-regulated insurance from the state that has the lowest standards.” That was precisely the argument that Obama used against Sen. John McCain during last year’s campaign.
Certner said that while AARP would be open to the idea of changing the tax code that currently subsidizes employer-based health care to the disadvantage of individuals purchasing coverage on their own, he insisted that health care legislation would also need to include more regulations aimed at forcing insurers to cover those with preexisting conditions, and to limit their ability to discriminate based on age.
AARP will continue to work with both parties toward legislation that had wide support, he said, but like the Obama administration, the group would be satisfied with a partisan bill if necessary.
“We’ve been keeping up our drumbeat of trying to get a broad coalition, and a broad bill passed by Congress,” Certner said. “But we are also determined to try and get health care reform done this year.”