Who Does AARP Represent In Health Care Debate?

Dale Anderson trusted AARP when she joined the group over a decade ago. But today, the Indiana resident says that’s no longer the case.

"I just took it at face value that they were representing retired citizens and I really didn’t stop to look at their agenda, thinking or philosophy," the 61-year-old retired nurse told HUMAN EVENTS. "And over time … I started to realize they take a bit of a liberal stance on issues."

Now as Congress prepares to return from the August recess, she worries that AARP will increase its lobbying efforts in an effort to pass a health care reform bill that suits the desires of President Obama and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, not all its 40 million members or those who expressed their anger at the slew of town hall meetings across the country.

History suggests she could be right. AARP’s lobbying efforts tend to have liberal leanings.

Dale Van Atta, author of Trust Betrayed: Inside the AARP, says, "[M]y biggest gripe is that they act as if they are speaking for their membership when it is impossible that they could be. Unless you are willing to accept the idea that all older people belong to one party, or one philosophy."

"With other senior organizations, it is clear who they are representing," Van Atta told HUMAN EVENTS.

That same realization pushed Anderson to rip up her membership card and join the conservative American Seniors Association (ASA), an Atlanta-based advocacy group that is reaching out to the small, but rebellious fraction of AARP members — 50,000 to 60,000 people — who have cancelled their membership because they fear, among other things, Medicare benefits will be reduced in order to support a health care overhaul.

"ASA is an advocacy group," Anderson said. "They ask members what they want and then they go to the legislators. Whereas AARP goes behind closed doors with government officials and does deals. I don’t trust them."

But others apparently do trust the AARP. Since July, the group reportedly has welcomed about 400,000 new members and 1.5 million have renewed their membership.

Meanwhile, David Certner, legislative policy director at AARP, has responded to some of the criticism by saying his group has not endorsed a specific bill and has "done significant outreach to our members, both through polling, research, town halls, and the large amount of calls and emails we receive."

But skeptics counter that the group only uses internal polling and research when it supports a liberal position they support. They also point out that AARP is working with the Obama administration to carve out a health care plan and airing a television ad that tells viewers: "special interests groups are trying to block healthcare reform, derailing a debate with myths and scare tactics, desperately trying to stop me from realizing reform won’t ration care. You and your doctor will always decide the best treatment for you."

AARP was founded by conservative Republican Ethel Percy Andrus in 1958 as a sister organization allied with the National Retired Teachers Association. The idea was to provide strong health insurance at a cheaper price. In Trust Betrayed, Van Atta writes that Andrus’s motto was "to serve and not be served" and that many of the editorials she wrote were "like listening to a speaker at a Republican convention."

For example, she wrote, "The question now confronts us: How did it happen that so many have substituted, in their thinking, governmental dependence for self-faith and self-reliance, the need of security for a drive toward self-development, the protection of socialized benefits in place of rewards for individual effort, the escape into anonymity instead of involvement in the unpleasant or the strange? Can we, without protest, without effort, stand by and see our America sold so short?"

Van Atta writes, and the ASA argues, that founding philosophy was eventually hijacked by liberal, big business and big government philosophy.

"All too often, AARP actively promotes causes that seniors neither like nor find beneficial," he wrote. "Some even run counter to their interests, especially the AARP’s relentless support of ever higher taxes, disastrous health care legislation that threatens seniors, and a whole litany of other liberal causes (such as attempting to defeat the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court)."

He wrote that these efforts are paid for by its numerous business dealings, "including insurance and pharmaceuticals, which the AARP claims are a nonprofit service to seniors, but which are really a revenue engine for the AARP and a profit engine for its business partners."

AARP has acknowledged when it aggressively pursues an issue on Capitol Hill, it losses members. Major membership drops occurred after the AARP supported the Medicare Catastrophic Act of 1989, the health care reform bills of 1994, and Medicare Prescription Part D in 2003. But, apparently, the group’s lobbying arm feels the current debate is too important to remain silent.

While it hard to dispute a major reason the group loses members is that it is hard to satisfy 40 million members at the same time, Van Atta suggests many of the dissenters are people who join AARP for the coupons and discounts only to later find out what the group is about.

Van Atta writes about how one membership expert told him, "I’ve never understood why we have any Republicans who are members of AARP, unless they find the discounts so enticing that they’ll ignore our Democratic nature."

Anderson, the retired nurse, also believes the decision-makers at AARP do not really care about what its membership wants — especially its conservative members.

"They do not contact members for advice on anything" she said, relaying her experience. "But when they make decisions — even though they may not have said that in bold language — they do it as if they are representing all of the senior citizens."

The breaking point for her came in July.

She says she received a petition in the mail from AARP that read: "Without affordable healthcare, a person’s entire retirement security could be hanging in the balance — left vulnerable to an unplanned illness or other health concern. To address this crucial part of retirement security, AARP is working with government leaders to … ensure people ages 50-64 have a choice of health care plans they can afford regardless of age of any pre-existing health conditions … increase affordable healthcare options .. empower state and federal government to negotiate lower drug prices on behalf of Medicaid and Medicare recipients … and legalize the safe importation of prescription drugs from other countries."

To her, the message sounded eerily familiar and, she says, it seemed "deceptive."

"The verbiage was identical to what Obama says. If you signed that and sent it in, with 40 million members of AARP, this is like agreeing to Obamacare," Anderson said.

Now she worries that when Congress returns to Capitol Hill this week, following a month of town hall meetings in which conservatives vehemently expressed their opposition to "socialism," "death panels" and Obama’s overall health care reform push, that AARP will hold up the petition list as evidence that its 40 million members are on board.

"[What] if a lot of people didn’t read it?" she asked. "When those petitions came out, we hadn’t got very much news on health care. Members would have been sending the signed petition in without any of the media coverage. If you get 40 million people sending back petitions, it will make it seem as if all seniors are in favor of Obamacare."