Sept. 2, 2009 -- AARP, which has lost tens of thousands of members over its support for efforts to revamp the health care system, is preparing a post-Labor Day blitz to try to cast itself as a politically impartial advocate on health care issues.
"To be clear: AARP has not endorsed any comprehensive health care reform bill -- but we are fighting for a solution that improves health care for our members," the group's CEO, Barry Rand, and president, Jennie Chin Hansen, wrote to members on Tuesday.
The effort gears up next week, when members of Congress -- some of them surprised by voter anger expressed at town-hall-style meetings last month -- return to the nation's capital to resume the debate over how to lower health care costs and provide insurance coverage for the millions who go without.
Since July 1, many of the 60,000 AARP members who have quit over concerns about health care legislation said they were worried it could lead to cuts in Medicare. Although AARP has not endorsed any specific plan, its general support for a system change left many members with the impression it backs the Democrats' bill.
The resignations surprised leaders of the 40-million-member lobbying group, even though it signed up 140,000 new members during the same period.
"The last thing I want is for members to feel we're not representing them," says Lori Parham, AARP's Florida director.
AARP's new national campaign will include:
• A post-Labor Day direct-mail blast -- 8 million letters will be sent, addressing concerns about health care and Medicare.
• Release of the September AARP Bulletin with a cover story debunking health care myths.
• Town hall forums and tele-town halls to address concerns about the changes the White House and Congress are considering.
• National TV and Web ads. A multimillion-dollar ad campaign, which started in mid-August, will continue through Sept. 14, and plans are underway for a second set of ads to run this fall.
AARP hopes to retain members such as Ted Campbell, head of the Republican Club at the Greenspring retirement community in Springfield, Va. A retired engineer, Campbell says many of his friends dropped their AARP memberships and he may quit, too.
AARP "most definitely should be neutral" in the health care debate, says Campbell, 80. "I can see that they're going Democratic, very much so. They talk about bipartisanship, but you don't see it."
Campbell's big worry: "rationing of treatments. It sounds to me like, based on age, they're going to determine whether you get treatment or not. I don't think that's the way to control health care costs."
In a letter to the AARP leadership last week, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele urged the group to reject "the Democrats' government-run health care experiment and the consequences it would have on seniors."
Rand and Hansen said they will work with both parties and urged their members to reject the "misinformation and fear-mongering in the debate."
Edward Coyle of the Alliance for Retired Americans says seniors groups "have not done as good a job as we might have talking to seniors about the real issues. ... We were taken aback earlier in the summer" when town hall meetings became shouting matches.
AARP's legislative director, David Certner, says the concerns seniors are raising now about rationing and cuts to their benefits are far different from those seniors have voiced for the past several years -- concerns that prompted AARP to endorse plans for health care system changes.
Those concerns, he says, were about the high cost of health care, the difficulty getting insurance for those between 50 and 64 years old who don't yet qualify for Medicare and the high cost of prescription drugs.
"There's clearly been an effort to scare people," says Certner, referring to incorrect warnings issued by some Republicans, including former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, of "death panels" that would cut off care for the elderly. "We've been spending a lot of time trying to dispel the myths. I think it has derailed the debate."
Jim Kessler of Third Way, a Washington think tank that backs a public option, says AARP must be "pro-reform without being partisan." Seniors are confused, he says, they "need to see (AARP) as an honest broker in this debate, ... where they will get the most accurate information."