From the Wall Street Journal – By Kimberley A. Strassel –
Newly released emails reveal the ‘nonpartisan’ group’s stealthy White House alliance on health care –
When Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan address the AARP on Friday, good manners will no doubt keep them from asking this question: How can that lobby claim to speak for American seniors given its partisan role in passing ObamaCare?
Thanks to just-released emails from the House Energy and Commerce Committee, we now know that AARP worked through 2009-10 as an extension of a Democratic White House, toiling daily to pass a health bill that slashes $716 billion from Medicare, strips seniors of choice, and sets the stage for rationing. We know that despite AARP’s awareness that its seniors overwhelmingly opposed the bill, the “nonpartisan membership organization” chose to serve the president’s agenda.
The 71 pages of emails show an AARP management taking orders from the White House, scripting the president’s talking points, working to keep its board “in line,” and pledging fealty to “the cause.” Seniors deserve to know all this, as AARP seeks to present itself as neutral in this presidential election.
The emails overall show an AARP leadership—Policy Chief John Rother, Health Policy Director Nora Super, Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond, Senior Vice President David Sloane—that from the start worked to pass ObamaCare, before crucial details pertaining to seniors had been addressed. This crew was in constant contact with Mr. Obama’s top aides, in particular Nancy-Ann DeParle and Jim Messina.
As early as July 2009, Mr. Sloane was sending the administration—”as promised”—his “message points” on Medicare. Ms. DeParle assured him “I think you will hear some of your lines tomorrow” in President Obama’s speech—which he did. Mr. Rother advised the White House on its outreach, discouraging Mr. Obama from addressing seniors since “he may not be the most effective messinger [sic] . . . at least to the McCain constituency.” Better to manage these folks, he counsels, through the “authoritative voices of doctors and nurses.”
AARP had long lambasted cuts in fees to Medicare doctors because reduced payments would mean fewer doctors who accept patients with the insurance. Yet in its campaign for ObamaCare, it argued the money the health law strips from Medicare—by imposing price controls on hospitals—would improve “care.” When the organization tried to sell the line to its own people, it didn’t go well. Ms. Super told Obama officials in June 2009: “It was actually a heavy lift for us to convince many at AARP that Medicare ‘savings’ (which they read as cuts) is not bad for beneficiaries.” Note the “savings” quote marks.
Even in November 2009, as the ObamaCare debate progressed, Ms. LeaMond worried that the Medicare spin wasn’t working against public criticism of the bill. She emailed Mr. Messina and Ms. DeParle that she was “seized” with “concerns about extended coherent, strong messaging by Republicans on the Medicare savings.” To pull off the legislation, she mused, “we”—the White House and AARP—will need a “concerted strategy.”
Lobbying for Seniors, or for Obama?
The emails AARP didn’t want its members to read.
In August 2009, AARP had already unveiled a national advertising blitz for ObamaCare, to ensure that “every member of Congress knows the 50-plus community wants action to fix what’s wrong with healthcare.” The group made this claim despite weeks of daily tracking showing its members in revolt against the president’s plan.
July 23, 2009: AARP reported to the White House that 1,031 members called in against the proposed health-care changes; 77 called in support. July 28, 2009: 4,174 opposed; 36 in support. July 29, 2009: 2,656 opposed; 23 in support. Mr. Sloane told the White House that AARP lost 1,897 members in a single day “in disagreement over our position on health reform.” All the reports to Team Obama were accompanied by AARP’s request to keep the information “close,” apparently so word didn’t leak that seniors hate ObamaCare. And the ad blitz went on.
Was AARP sending these tracking reports to its outside board of directors—its governing body? Maybe not: AARP staff seemed to view the board as a problem. In June 2009, Ms. Super emailed Obama budget guy Keith Fontenot: The AARP board is meeting, she said, and we “need to get their buy-in on several proposals,” including the president’s Medicare cuts, which “as you might imagine, they are a bit concerned about.” Could he share ideas with her? “It would really help get them on Board.”
When Mr. Rother was asked in December 2009 by the White House to attend an event with Mr. Obama, he declined. “I am presenting to my Board on health reform” on the same day, he wrote. “I think you want me to keep my Board in line, so please understand my need to regret.”
AARP was, however, on 24-hour alert to do the White House’s political bidding. Typical is a March 2010 email exchange about Rep. Larry Kissell, a North Carolina Democrat who remained a “no” vote as ObamaCare neared its endgame. Labor boss Andy Stern emailed Mr. Messina—”Kissel [sic] a Problem”—and advised bringing in the AARP guns. Mr. Messina forwarded the note to Ms. LeaMond, with the word “Help.” “On it,” she quickly responded. Soon after: Does Mr. Messina want AARP to have its board chairman arrange a meeting, or just call the congressman “right away?” “Both?” Mr. Messina asked. “Will do,” she assured him. Rep. Kissell voted no.
In an interview, AARP spokesman Jim Dau and Legislative Policy Director David Certner noted that the lobby was committed to health-care reform long before Mr. Obama’s election, that it pushed for policy additions to the bill that were crucial for seniors, and that it did not endorse legislation until AARP’s priorities were met. They said that the board was kept informed and that AARP faced similar criticism when it worked with the GOP on a drug benefit in 2003.
“We get criticized, but we never take our eye off the ball when it comes to pursuing things that are good for our members,” says Mr. Dau. “We make no apologies for our advocacy.”
AARP’s ardent efforts on behalf of ObamaCare bear a resemblance to the work of the drug and health industry in 2009—with one significant difference. Those industries’ backroom dealing was motivated by financial self-interest. What motivated AARP, given that its membership of 37 million people 50 years old and older was clearly opposed to ObamaCare, since they recognized that it would hurt them? The answer appears to be: pure ideology.
In October 2009, Ms. Super expressed frustration that the Senate might strip more spending from the bill. She declared to colleagues: “I’m heading up to the House now where at least Democrats are Democrats (sort of).” Ms. Super is now working for Mr. Obama’s Health and Human Services Department.
In November 2009, Mr. Rother declined a White House request to have an AARP person take part in a roundtable. “I think we will try to keep a little space between us and the White House,” he explained, adding that AARP’s “polling” shows the organization is more “influential when we are seen as independent.” He wanted “to reinforce that positioning,” said the man working daily to pass ObamaCare, since “the larger issue is how to best serve the cause.” Mr. Rother has left AARP and now leads the liberal National Coalition on Health Care.
When the health-care reform bill passed the House in March 2010, Ms. LeaMond exuberantly emailed Mr. Messina: “This is the new AARP-WH/Hill—LeaMond/Messina relationship. . . . Seriously, a great victory for you and the President.”
But not one for America’s seniors, who had looked to AARP to oppose ObamaCare’s cuts and rationing. That’s worth remembering come the next AARP bulletin to seniors offering its “balanced” view on issues.