Waffling AARP: Medicare, Social Security at Risk

Over the past two months, AARP has been all over the map on cuts to Social Security and Medicare. For the 37 million members of AARP, including the more than 500,000 in Broward and Palm Beach counties alone, who, like President Obama, get “my card with all the benefits,” this questionable support is unsettling. The super-committee of Congress is set to negotiate possible changes to these programs. This is not the time for AARP to waffle about using its full force to support Medicare and Social Security.

In June, chief policy analyst John Rother told The Wall Street Journal that AARP would be open to cuts because they were “inevitable.” He “wanted to be at the wheel when that happens.”

Organizations like Third Way seized the weakness to say now that AARP has “opened the door to reform, it is time for lawmakers to walk through it.” Republicans and Democrats are discussing reducing cost-of-living triggers, raising the retirement age, higher co-pays, means testing and other gradual cutbacks of seniors' programs to lower the nation's debt.

AARP may have seen the danger of its earlier position. In July, AARP released a TV ad that aggressively shows a senior citizen threatening politicians — but not his own organization's chief policy analyst — who want to “cut benefits.” The man poses in front of his home, arms folded, forcefully claiming that 50 million senior citizens will not be used as pawns in deficit negotiations.

AARP wants politicians to remember that 70 percent of those older than 65 vote. AARP may have learned the lesson from the May 24 special congressional election of in New York's District 26, where underdog Kath Hochul upset her Republican opponent — the first Democratic victory in the district in 30 years — by framing the campaign solely on cuts to Medicare. Suddenly, AARP understood that if it continued to advocate cuts in Medicare or turning it into vouchers, the group, too, would lose members.

Changes to Social Security or Medicare would have disastrous effects in the future for Florida's highest-in-the-nation number of senior citizens (currently 17 per cent of Floridians). Republicans in Congress have caused the House to pass both “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” and the Ryan budget plan. Beginning at decade's end, these proposals would cut Medicare benefits in half, cost families an extra $6,000 in health costs, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and force seniors to use private insurers to decide when and what illnesses are covered.

AARP has been indispensible to seniors with travel discounts, health-insurance opportunities, and home and auto insurance discounts. There is power in volume.

However, AARP leadership gets too cozy with the political leadership it is trying to affect, at the expense of its membership.

Perhaps the “issues” mantle of protecting seniors should be led by other single-focus groups. Organizations such as the Gray Panthers under Maggie Kuhn were very successful in the past advocating forcefully for the rights of the aged. The Alliance for Health Reform, whose CEO is former Claude Pepper-House Aging Committee Counsel Ed Howard, is reliably supportive and substantive. Former Congressman Barbara Kennelly’s National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare is laser-focused on stopping cuts.

Without Social Security and Medicare, nearly half Americans age 65 or older would be below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau. For two-thirds of the elderly, Social Security provides the majority of income. For one-third, it provides more than 90 percent. Medicare alone has reduced seniors' poverty by more than 20 percent, while providing health and expanding life for nearly all — “priceless.”

Would AARP allow cuts and “reforms” (meaning program slashes) in the current deficit negotiations? Its press statements still say it wants to “evaluate changes” case-by-case rather than block them.

By potentially going along with cuts, AARP would be giving political cover to those looking to cut the deficit on the backs of the elderly. If AARP is willing to support reductions to programs running surpluses and projected to be solvent for decades, just for the sake of being included in the power structure in Washington, it will forfeit all goodwill and put all those older than the age of 50 at risk in Florida and across the nation.