AARP endorses House healthcare reform bill

Democrats scored a huge coup Thursday when the AARP announced its endorsement of the House healthcare bill.

The public support from the seniors’ lobby comes just two days before House members are set to vote on the landmark legislation.

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“AARP is proud to endorse the Affordable Health Care for America Act. We urge members of the House to pass this critical bill this year so our healthcare system can work for all of us," AARP CEO A. Barry Rand said at a press conference. “This bill includes critical priorities for seniors – critical – ensures quality, affordable health coverage options for all Americans, provides and strengthens Medicare for today’s seniors and future generations and puts us on a path to improving our long-term health system.”

While the endorsement hardly guarantees success for the Democrats, the group has a fearsome track record of getting its way in major political debates. The AARP played a decisive role in derailing President George W. Bush's effort to add private investment accounts to Social Security in 2005. Two years prior, the AARP enraged Democrats by endorsing and helping to enact Bush's plan to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

Polls have shown senior citizens to be the hardest segment of society to win over on healthcare reform. An intensified effort by the AARP could provide a significant boost to the effort.

President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats have aggressively courted the AARP's backing all year. To this point, the organization had withheld an endorsement, at one point even demanding Obama retract a statement he made this summer prematurely claiming the AARP's endorsement.

But the AARP had practically done everything but endorse the Democrats' bills. On its own and in coalitions with business and consumer groups, the AARP has spent millions over the past two years promoting healthcare reform. In addition, the group has used its formidable grassroots network to sell reform to skeptical older Americans and pushed back hard against conservative claims that the Democratic legislation would cut Medicare benefits, enforce government rationing of healthcare services and establish "death panels" to deny care to people near the end of life.

The bill includes numerous major priorities for the AARP. Under the House legislation, a gap in Medicare's drug coverage would be eliminated and the government would be permitted to directly negotiate drug prices for the program. In addition, health insurance market reforms would limit insurers' ability to deny coverage and charge higher premiums to older Americans, while subsidies would be provided to help low- and moderate-income people to pay for insurance.

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The AARP's activities have raised the ire of Republicans, who cast aspersions on the AARP's motives by noting that the organization partially finances its operations with revenue from sales of health insurance products. 

“These same people who are raising some of these objections are people who have in the past voted for very stiff reductions in Medicare benefits and rates,” said John Rother, the AARP’s executive vice president of policy and strategy.

Indeed, the AARP is supporting a bill that would cut hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicare, though Democrats insist those spending reductions will not negatively affect benefits. Big cuts to funding for private Medicare Advantage plans, however, could likely lead to the extra benefits being scaled back for some beneficiaries.

The AARP's prominent role in promoting healthcare reform has also fomented dissent within its ranks. AARP executives have acknowledged that its conservative members have objected to its perceived support of Obama's agenda, with a few thousand of them quitting in protest.

“We believe,” Rand said, that “more people will be interested in lower-cost healthcare than being mad at AARP” and that the group will actually gain members as a result of its support for the House bill.

The AARP will not take a position on the Senate’s version of healthcare reform until Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) unveils the legislation, Rother said.

This story was updated at 1:30 p.m.