Stimulus, health reform top broad AARP agenda

The AARP on Tuesday unveiled its legislative priorities for the 111th Congress, a characteristically sweeping agenda that focuses on the recession and on health reform.

“This is not the time for business as usual,” AARP CEO Bill Novelli said at a press briefing. “It is time to demonstrate bold leadership, to take our agenda to the people and our nation’s leaders, to demand change and to work hard to bring about that change.”

With more than 40 million members among the crucial bloc of voters 50 or older, the nonpartisan AARP is in a position to do just that and to be a major player in the Obama administration’s health reform push, for which it has been preparing for at least two years.

Along with the Service Employees International Union, the Business Roundtable and the National Federation of Independent Business, AARP is a member of the Divided We Fail coalition, which advocates for national health reform.

Divided We Fail’s participants spent millions on grassroots organizing, public relations and advertising to promote health reform during election season. Though the individual groups undoubtedly will split on contentious issues during the health reform debate, they also intend to continue pushing lawmakers to keep healthcare on the legislative agenda in the coming year.

Novelli maintained that addressing escalating national healthcare spending is critical to solving the long-term fiscal problems facing Medicare.

In the meantime, the AARP is busy promoting its priorities for the economic stimulus bill President-elect Obama wants on his desk shortly after inauguration, seeking to ensure that older Americans benefit from the measure, which is approaching $1 trillion in its potential cost.

“The economy’s effect on people who are in the workforce, near-retirees and retirees is drastic; the time for solutions is now,” said Nancy LeaMond, the group’s executive vice president for social impact and the director of Divided We Fail.

In particular, the influential seniors’ group is aligning itself with state governors and influential Democratic lawmakers in seeking as much as $50 billion in additional federal Medicaid spending to help states sustain the healthcare program for the poor. Medicaid is by far the largest provider of nursing home and other long-term care coverage.

{mospagebreak}“Long-term care is often the first thing on the table for cuts” during state budget shortfalls, said Elaine Ryan, the AARP’s vice president for government relations. The AARP also is pressing lawmakers to include provisions in the stimulus prohibiting states from taking the extra Medicaid dollars but cutting long-term care services anyway.

The AARP is also backing the inclusion of items in the stimulus package that would affect people beyond their membership, such as extending unemployment benefits, preserving nutrition and home-heating programs, assisting with housing costs and mortgage foreclosures and spending on transportation infrastructure.

The group also supports Obama and the Democratic congressional leadership’s interest in including other healthcare provisions in the stimulus bill. Specifically, the AARP wants Congress to set aside up to $50 billion to set up electronic health records and other health information technology, and to encourage employment in the nursing sector, where there is a severe shortage of workers.

Echoing Obama’s rhetoric, AARP executives said the poor condition of the economy will aid, not hinder, efforts to enact an overhaul of the healthcare system.

“The economic crisis is promoting the need for health reform because more people are at risk,” said John Rother, AARP’s executive vice president for policy and strategy.

In addition to health reform, the AARP is also eyeing some targeted Medicare reforms, such as implementing payments to providers based on quality, reducing or eliminating the asset test for generous prescription drug benefit subsidies and permitting the federal government to directly negotiate prices for pharmaceuticals covered by Medicare.

The AARP also favors allowing generic versions of complex biologic drugs and funding research to compare the effectiveness of similar medicines.

On the retirement savings and security front, the AARP calls for improvements in savings vehicles such as IRAs and tax incentives for workers to set aside earnings for retirement.