AARP Faces Heat

Posted February 11, 2004 at 6:42pm

As the war of words over the new Medicare law escalates, some House Republicans are still waiting for one of the bill’s most high-profile supporters — AARP — to step up its public relations efforts and have told the group not to expect any more help until it does.

The backing of the 35 million-member seniors’ organization was instrumental to the narrow passage of the prescription drug benefit, particularly given that the nominally nonpartisan AARP has traditionally aligned itself far more often with Democrats than Republicans

The group’s endorsement was accompanied by various pledges to do a major PR campaign and a wealth of grassroots work to help sell senior citizens on the merits of the bill and counter criticisms from Democrats who opposed the measure.

House Republicans are giving AARP a mixed report card on what it’s done so far.

“I think they’ve backed away from some things,” said a senior House GOP leadership aide.

While AARP is led by William Novelli, a self-described independent who wrote a foreword to a book on health care by ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Republicans recognize that AARP still has a number of Democrats in influential positions. They believe that the group’s national leadership is still trying to convince some officials in its state offices that backing the Medicare bill was a wise move.

“We know there’s an internal battle going on at AARP,” said a second Republican leadership aide.

Meanwhile, AARP is pressing ahead in lobbying for an ambitious legislative agenda that includes drug reimportation, reducing drug prices and improving Medicare benefits. Novelli and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) discussed the agenda in a phone conversation last month, during which the Speaker sent a clear message.

A Republican source described that message as, “Don’t be asking us for anything more this year.”

Kevin Donnellan, AARP’s director of grassroots and elections, strongly disputed the suggestion that the group has not carried its weight in helping to sell the Medicare bill.

“I think we’re on the road to an excellent start,” said Donnellan. “I would challenge anyone who thinks we’re not doing an aggressive campaign.”

He said that AARP’s work so far has had three primary components:

• working with coalitions and government agencies to help create a “coordinated and integrated outreach strategy” for informing low-income Americans about getting their new prescription drug cards;

• educating the group’s members through its regular publications and a half-million new brochures about the bill’s merits; and

• coordinating with AARP’s state offices on doing educational forums and events.

When the Medicare measure passed in December, some press reports said AARP had pledged to spend $25 million on convincing the public the bill was a good one. Donnellan said no specific amounts of money were pledged but that the group does expect to do more education through paid media.

“We do plan on doing advertising,” he said. “That’s something we’re working on.”

The Department of Health and Human Services has already launched its own $22 million publicity campaign on the Medicare bill, prompting Democratic complaints and a General Accounting Office investigation.

House and Senate Republicans aren’t waiting for AARP to act before launching their own promotional efforts. Both chambers’ Republican Conferences have briefed their members on effective strategies for educating their constituents on the new bill.

In January, the National Republican Congressional Committee paid the Tarrance Group roughly $200,000 to conduct polling and focus groups on Medicare.

“We wanted to figure out what seniors knew and what appealed to them most about the bill,” said NRCC spokesman Carl Forti.

He said the polling showed that 88 percent of seniors were aware of the Medicare measure but that there was widespread confusion about what exactly the bill does.

Republicans and Democrats have both been actively discussing the measure in the media, but the two parties have been giving conflicting information about it.

“The next few months offer us a window to educate seniors about the bill,” Forti said.