A politician spoke to a top D.C. special interest group on Monday. He told them that his legislation helped make them richer at taxpayers' expense and received their applause for doing so. Sound outrageous? Well, consider this: The speaker was President Obama, and the special interest was AARP.
The president spoke to the senior group's annual conference via satellite to tout his health care law, arguing that it had strengthened health care for seniors. He also warned that a Mitt Romney presidency would do the bidding of the insurance giants.
"No American should ever spend their golden years at the mercy of insurance companies," Obama said.
What he didn't say was that the leadership of AARP had worked extensively behind the scenes with the White House to pass the law, acting against the wishes of its own members and spinning furiously to keep its own board of directors "in line."
Advocacy is only part of what AARP does. It is also heavily involved in the insurance business. Insurers pay AARP to use its name, and that accounts for 60 percent of the organization's revenue. Membership dues account for just 17 percent.
Thanks to its cuts to Medicare Advantage, Obamacare is expected to expand the number of seniors buying "medigap" supplemental insurance plans. AARP controls 34 percent of the market for such plans. According to a 2011 House Ways and Means Committee report, AARP stands to make between $55 million and $166 million from Obamacare in 2014 alone.
As emails recently unearthed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee show, the supposedly neutral, nonpartisan group coordinated with the White House on media strategy and lobbying reluctant lawmakers.
AARP members opposed Obamacare. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in November 2009, found seniors opposed the reform 61 percent to 21 percent. In internal emails, AARP reported calls were running 14-1 against the Obama proposal. Thousands canceled their memberships.
Part of the problem was that the law diverted funds from Medicare -- ultimately $716 billion -- to pay for itself. "[I]t was actually a heavy lift for us to convince many at AARP that Medicare 'savings' (which they read as cuts) is not bad for beneficiaries," read one internal email.
In another, an AARP official wrote to the White House's Office of Management and Budget asking for help to get their board's "buy-in" on the Medicare funding. "As you might imagine, they are a bit concerned about this. Anyway you could share some of these ideas with us in advance????"
In another email to the White House, an AARP official wrote to beg off an event invite: "I think you want me to keep my board in line, so please understand my need to regret." In short, neither the concerns of its own members nor its board stood in the way of AARP's D.C. lobbyists from expanding the reach of its insurance business.
A July CNN poll found seniors still favor repeal of Obamacare 54 percent to 41 percent. Why shouldn't they? Despite Obama's claims to the contrary, the diversion of $716 billion from Medicare payments to providers will negatively affect the quality of care that seniors receive through the program.
The members' concerns didn't register much at the Friday meeting, either. Obama was cheered for his speech. When Paul Ryan spoke to the same group and said he would repeal Obamacare, as most seniors favor, they booed.
"There has been a lot of talk about Medicare and Social Security that hasn't been on the level," Obama said Friday. On that, at least, we agree.