Washington is full of groups that claim to represent the interests of the American people. Some have lots of members, which makes them formidable actors in the ongoing effort to craft public policy.
Among the most powerful is AARP (the American Association of Retired Persons), which has developed a network of politically active seniors who vote and defend their benefits zealously. That makes them a group the politicians fear, which gives them outsized influence on issues like healthcare.
According to a new report, what the group seems to be may not be what it is. “How AARP Puts Profits over Patients and Principles,” issued by a conservative nonprofit called American Commitment, says that rather than being a genuine grassroots lobby organization, AARP’s ties to the health insurance industry have turned into something like a corporate influence operation working to sway the decisions of Capitol Hill lawmakers.
Many times, the report says, AARP has done things that create apparent conflicts of interest between the needs of the people the group claims to represent.
“If AARP were an honest broker for seniors, they would have acknowledged, and likely fought against, Democrats’ budgeting ruse allowing them to raid $280 billion from the supposed Medicare savings in the IRA,” wrote economist Stephen Moore in National Review. “Billions were instead diverted to fund subsidies for non-Medicare healthcare policies paid to big insurers.”
Critics of price controls on pharmaceuticals allege they will discourage future research and innovation that in turn will eventually cause the quality of care available to seniors to diminish over coming years.
All that, American Commitment president Phil Kerpen said, “provides further evidence that AARP does not serve the interests of seniors, but rather its principal funders, UnitedHealth and its subsidiary OptumRx — respectively the largest health insurance company in the country and a pharmacy middleman.”
Accusing AARP of having made “its allegiance to these companies clear,” Kerpen goes on to decry the group’s support for legislation that siphoned “billions of dollars from seniors’ Medicare to subsidize big health insurers and liberal spending priorities.”
AARP’s internal polling shows the cost of health insurance premiums, the size of deductibles and copays, and other out-of-pocket expenses are what close to three-quarters of seniors cite as the biggest financial issue they face in healthcare. Less than 20 percent say it’s the price of prescription drugs, which is a major concern for insurance companies. Which issue gets most of AARP’s attention?
Well, AARP pushed Congress to enact the trillion-dollar Inflation Reduction Act, which included provisions helpful to the health insurance industry but overall damaging to Medicare’s long-term financial security. That doesn’t sound like something a seniors’ lobby should be doing — yet it reportedly spent millions on paid ads urging passage of the act as well as petition drives and meetings that almost exclusively benefited congressional Democrats backing the measure’s cap on prescription drug prices.
Congress has investigated AARP’s financial relationship with big insurance more than once without reaching any conclusions. It should do so again, in its interests and the public. Unless it does, the risk that legislative and regulatory actions will be pushed ahead under the guise of helping America’s seniors that will hurt them.
AARP members have a right to know what’s going on. So does Congress, and so do we all. It is a matter of trust.
Peter Roff, a former United Press International and U.S. News & World Report columnist and political writer, is now affiliated with several Washington-D.C.-based public policy organizations. Contact him at RoffColumns@gmail.com.