AARP, healthcare groups link up for push in early-primary states

The senior citizens’ lobbying group AARP and a handful of patient-advocacy groups have joined together to stage events in key presidential primary states to sway the debate on healthcare, a key emerging campaign issue.

This morning, the chief executives of the AARP, the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association will hold press conferences, rallies, training seminars and visits to campaign offices in early-primary states to promote healthcare coverage and access, particularly for people with chronic diseases.

Today’s events mark the beginning of a months-long collaboration between the five organizations. “We anticipate that this
is going to go on throughout the duration of the campaign,” said Clarissa Garcia, the grassroots director of the heart association.

The joint campaign leverages the enormous financial and grassroots resources of these organizations into what they hope will be a force during the presidential election.

Joining with healthcare groups on the campaign trail is a new strategy for the AARP and its partners. “The difference this year is the collaborative approach,” Garcia said.

“I think this is the first time in a presidential election we’ve really come together to focus on the issue,” said Michael Farley, the interim chief executive of the diabetes association. “Our efforts this year are more intensified in the area of access to care,” cancer society spokesman Steven Weiss said.

The AARP will hold its event in Concord, N.H., while the diabetes and cancer groups will hold a combined event in Des Moines, Iowa. The heart association will gather supporters in Columbia, S.C., and the Alzheimer’s group will meet in Reno, Nev. Each event is expected to draw somewhere between 100 and 200 people.

The groups also bought print ads in today’s editions of the major newspapers in the four states to publicize their efforts.
Politicians from each state are expected to join the organizations’ executives, as will individuals with chronic diseases, who will speak of their own experiences.

Representatives and volunteers in New Hampshire and Iowa will follow up their press briefings with bus trips to pay visits to presidential candidates’ campaign offices in those states.

In South Carolina and Nevada, volunteers will undergo training sessions today to prepare them to act as spokesmen for the groups’ agenda at town-hall meetings and presidential campaign events in their home states. The sessions, which will be jointly conducted by representatives from the five organizations, will emphasize that volunteers should share personal stories about their encounters with the healthcare system.

“We’ll have educated advocates in the field to raise the issue and keep it in the forefront,” Farley said.

Healthcare is in line to be the dominant domestic policy issue in the 2008 election. The rising costs of healthcare and health insurance, the millions of people who lack coverage, and the growing financial burden on private employers and the government alike have led to a broad consensus among policymakers that change is needed, despite the lack of agreement on what that change should look like.

The current Democratic frontrunners — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOvernight Energy: EPA declines to write new rule for toxic spills | Senate blocks move to stop Obama water rule | EPA bought 'tactical' pants and polos Clarifying the power of federal agencies could offer Trump a lasting legacy Dems allow separation of parents, children to continue, just to score political points MORE (Ill.) and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) — have each vowed to effect universal health coverage if elected.

The leading Republican candidates have not made healthcare as prominent in their campaigns, but some of the candidates have pedigrees on the issue. For example, Mitt Romney oversaw the enactment of a universal health coverage law while governor of Massachusetts, and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson served four years as President Bush’s secretary of Health and Human Services. Meanwhile, Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainDon’t disrespect McCain by torpedoing his clean National Defense Authorization Act Meghan McCain rips Trump's 'gross' line about her dad Trump's America fights back MORE (Ariz.) has been a vocal proponent of the importation of cheaper medicines from abroad.

None of the five groups endorses candidates, makes political contributions, or has a political action committee, their spokesmen said.

The AARP has been positioning itself to play a major role in influencing the presidential candidates’ stances on healthcare and financial security for older Americans. The organization has been carrying out its “Divided We Fail” campaign in early-primary states and plans to expand the effort nationwide using its network of state offices as November 2008 approaches.

The well-financed organization, which boasts 35 million members, historically has provided members with information on candidates’ positions on issues important to them. This year, however, the group has vowed to promote its agenda more aggressively.

The AARP is working with the patient-advocacy groups in particular to highlight its positions on healthcare issues. “AARP became a galvanizing force” in bringing the groups together, Farley said, although they have a history of collaborating in other arenas. “Because of our constituency, [we] all share a concern about high-quality healthcare,” he said.

The AARP also is assembling a similar coalition to advocate its stances on financial security issues such as Social Security, pensions and retirement investment accounts.