When AARP, the dominant player among seniors groups, found itself in hot water because of controversial comments made by one of its top executives about Social Security reform, Phil Kent saw an opportunity.
Kent is CEO of the competing American Seniors Association, a 6-year-old outfit that bills itself as AARP’s conservative alternative. He is always on the lookout for opportunities to woo some of AARP’s 40 million members to his startup, a task he says became significantly easier when AARP endorsed the measure during the health care debate in the last Congress.
“Hardly a week goes by where we don’t get a torn up AARP card,” he said.
The most recent AARP dust-up came after the Wall Street Journal quoted the group’s top lobbyist, John Rother, indicating that AARP is willing to drop its long-standing opposition to a Social Security overhaul. Since then, AARP has labored to clarify that despite the quotes, it has not, in fact, flipped its position.
“We could not be more adamant that AARP has not changed its position on Social Security,” said Mary Liz Burns, AARP’s senior manager of media relations. “Basically, the quotes, and the way the story was handled, mischaracterized our views.”
But Kent thinks there is more to the story.
“The flap just showed the hypocrisy. They’ve always been for tax increases and big government,” said Kent, whose 13 million-member group is based in Atlanta. “We see a great opportunity over the next year.”
The ASA and the 60 Plus Association — another AARP competitor — both issued press releases June 17 when the Wall Street Journal story ran and have since engaged in a full-scale media campaign including TV and talk radio interviews and editorial pieces.
“The AARP has always ducked this tough problem and attacked former President George W. Bush and lawmakers and organizations that tried to propose meaningful reform — even though delaying a Social Security fix will cause deeper cuts in benefits or greater tax hikes down the road,” the ASA press release said.
“We’ve said we’re for reforms, but we sure as hell aren’t talking about cutting benefits,” James Martin, chairman of the 60 Plus Association, told Roll Call. “That is a cruel joke on seniors.”
Kent said he hopes to capitalize on the flap to chip off more AARP members. “We’re going to ramp things up to rebrand the ASA,” he said, including a possible National Press Club event this fall.
Beltway insiders discount AARP competitors’ ability to make a dent in the massive organization’s influence or bottom line.
But health care lobbyists said it remains an open question as to whether Rother, the organization’s longtime executive vice president of policy and strategy, will remain with the group or how it will affect his clout inside. Burns said AARP would not comment on such speculation and is instead “focusing on protecting Social Security from any harmful cuts that may be part of any debt ceiling negotiations.”
One health care lobbyist called the whole flap a “communications mishap” in which Rother “got himself a little far out there. Now they’re trying to clean up the mess.”
It also has given anti-AARP Republicans on the Hill new ammunition. But still, this lobbyist said, “I don’t think it moves them back.”
None of AARP’s competitors has the budget or the member numbers, this lobbyist noted, to break through in a significant way.
Another lobbyist said AARP is in “lockdown” mode internally and is saying nothing about Rother’s status there. “It was manipulation by the press,” this second lobbyist said. “But the quotes were politically insensitive.”
Even 60 Plus’ Martin said it’s unlikely that AARP, given its massive membership base, could lose much influence on Capitol Hill, even though he has noticed an increase in traffic to his own website. “Seniors are pissed off, irate — they are kind of scratching their heads” about what AARP is up to, he said.
Although the story has forced AARP to do damage control on Capitol Hill, the group’s executive vice president of state and national groups, Nancy LeaMond, said it hasn’t distracted the organization from its mission of protecting Medicare and Social Security in the midst of the debt ceiling debate.
“For us, it’s business as usual,” LeaMond said.
AARP has launched a national advertising campaign called Protect Seniors and is working to persuade its members and like-minded seniors to write or call their Members of Congress to prevent harmful cuts to the entitlement programs.
“We’ve seen an avalanche of communication from our members,” LeaMond said. “We’ve driven around 300,000 phone calls and emails to the Congress.”
During the House recess this week and the Senate recess next week, AARP’s volunteers have scheduled numerous visits with Members in their districts.
LeaMond added that she’s aware that other organizations have reached out to seniors after the Wall Street Journal article. But she said it’s an issue that’s not likely to resonate outside the Beltway.
“We don’t have any sense of what impact that’s having on seniors because all we’re seeing is members responding to the real issue: potential cuts to Medicare and Social Security,” she said.
As for charges that it has any partisan bent, AARP contends that it “has always been a nonpartisan organization with members across the country that represent the political spectrum,” according to Burns.
Some of the criticism of AARP might also have a commercial basis.
The ASA sells medical and life insurance products that compete with those offered by AARP.
ASA’s Chris Polk said AARP has “sold its soul” by entering into exclusive arrangements with benefits companies such as UnitedHealthcare.
“Now if you call us, we’re going to find you the best provider based on your ZIP code and the medications you’re taking,” Polk said. “We do business with UnitedHealthcare, but we don’t if they’re not the best product for our member.”
Burns said that her group’s subsidiary, AARP Services, “works with a number of providers” including UnitedHealthcare, Aetna and Genworth Financial “to meet the needs of our members.”
Polk said the ASA fields seven-figure offers to enter into exclusive arrangements with particular companies but has declined.
“We need the money,” he said, “but it’s not the best thing for our members. That’s the difference between us and AARP. That is huge.”