AARP, the gargantuan public interest group that has defended and expanded seniors' benefits for 50 years, finds itself under attack by the vociferous voices of the far right.
The critics imply that AARP is somehow cheating its 40 million members because it annually collects $650 million from insurance, prescription drug providers and others whose products and services receive its special endorsement.
The Washington Post gave renewed life to those charges late last month in a story that reported the group heavily markets its products "on its Web site, in mailings to members and through ubiquitous advertising targeted at seniors."
Ultra-conservatives particularly are up in arms over their contention that AARP backs omnibus reform legislation that would slash Medicare spending by $400 billion and gut Medicare Advantage, the public-private partnership that provides seniors with medical and pharmaceutical discounts. The charges seem somewhat spurious since reductions in spending for Medicare and Medicare Advantage are more than offset by increasing spending for seniors in other medical areas.
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Indeed, the proposals now making their way through Congress are overly senior-friendly when viewed from the perspective of almost anyone under 50.
For instance, when fully implemented they'll reduce the overall costs of purchasing prescription drugs, ban insurers from denying coverage to anyone with pre-existing conditions and prevent insurers from jacking up prices after patients file large claims.
Most of the cost for a newly reformed health system, in fact, will be borne by Americans between the ages of 20 to 40 — people, on average, in far better health and much less likely to require medical services than the plus-50 group that AARP serves.
Moreover, AARP's right-wing foes fail to note that royalties provide more than half of its current $1.14 billion in revenues. Those revenues, in turn, provide an amazing array of services and discounts for its legions of members — a potential return many, many times higher than its annual membership of $16.
In addition to lobbying for legislation that helps seniors in Washington and all 50 state capitals, AARP provides them with highly discounted restaurant, lodging and travel discounts, financial guidance, grief counseling and even advice to the lovelorn.
Ironically, hard-core conservatives are taking issue with AARP because its brandishes the same capitalistic marketing and promotional tools used to good effect by U.S corporations and small businesses for the past 200 years.
The organization was created in 1958 by Ethel Percy Andrus, a former educator who started the group to help retired school teachers find affordable health insurance in the days before Medicare. It was known as the American Association of Retired Persons until the turn of this decade when it decided its acronym better reflected that much of its membership was plus 50 rather over 65.
While nearly 40,000 AARP members dropped out of the group this year in response to urgings from the right-wing polemicists, they represent less than 1 percent of total membership. And no wonder! Independent surveys of AARP members consistently give it high-approval ratings.
The overwhelming majority of its members see it as pretty much apolitical — neither tilting much toward the left nor the right.
Its real sin: backing the Obama administration's efforts to persuade Congress to reform America's current rickety health care system in a way that provides near-universal coverage, lowers overall costs and improves the quality of treatment for everyone.
Any younger American who has ever had a parent or older relative or friend fall ill and fall through the gaping holes in our current health care safety net understands that bipartisan reform is crucial to our nation's economic and moral survival. It's time finally to join the ranks of other advanced countries that understand that quality medical care is a basic human right.
Madsen is a contributing writer to the progressive Online Journal (www.onlinejournal.com). Readers may write to him in care of National Press Club, Front Desk, 529 14th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20045.
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