We are about a month away from the First in the Nation presidential primary, and special interest groups are out in full force to elevate their issues and put candidates on the spot. We all want clear answers from politicians on their intentions if they are elected, but we should also expect transparency from advocacy groups claiming to represent Granite Staters’ priorities.
As the Republican candidates participate in a Social Security town hall hosted by AARP, or the American Association of Retired Persons as they used to be known, it’s important that we examine what the alleged senior advocacy organization is all about.
Each election cycle, the AARP pulls out the same political playbook. It elevates threats to Social Security’s financial future to scare seniors and then positions itself as some type of savior for the program. And it’s probably been good marketing for them, considering they’ve been doing it for years. But like a bad politician or relative, AARP never offers or endorses new solutions to the actual problems they highlight. They just create panic and demand candidates pledge not to cut current seniors’ benefits even though few, if any, support doing so.
Why do it then?
Some would argue they do so intentionally, not so much for their membership’s benefit but more for AARP’s institutional political and financial gain. Despite casting itself as non-partisan, it’s no secret AARP’s agenda has trended leftward and become increasingly aligned with that of Democrat policymakers. And make no mistake, Democrats have their own blanket election-year playbook on Social Security – falsely accusing Republicans of wanting to make drastic and immediate cuts to the program irrespective of evidence to that end.
So, while AARP, through its advertising, events, and grassroots activities, feigns to elevate Social Security as simply an important discussion topic on the campaign trail, Democrats are usually waiting in the wings to level assaults against any opponent who publicly obliges AARP in even discussing it.
Sort of a good cop, bad cop scenario emerges.
But there are likely other reasons AARP focuses so much on Social Security, and less so on Medicare’s financial uncertainty these days. Both critical programs face challenges, but AARP’s questionable support for the Democrats’ so-called Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) that raided $280 billion in Medicare prescription savings is key among them. How does AARP present itself as an advocate dedicated to securing Medicare’s long-term solvency when it supported recent legislation that diverted billions obligated to beneficiaries that instead went to fund unrelated special interest programs?
It gets worse. In addition to using the IRA’s Medicare drug savings to pay for handouts like electric vehicle and solar panel tax credits, billions were reallocated to pay for large tax subsidies benefiting massive health insurers like AARP’s corporate benefactor, UnitedHealth. Equally astonishing, these climate and insurer subsidies were doled out immediately while the IRA provisions AARP and Democrats sold to seniors as a means to lower their drug costs had delayed implementation timeframes of two to five years. It was a huge win for Democrats and big insurers seeking a financial windfall but far less so for older Americans.
What AARP stays largely silent on is equally concerning. From bipartisan reforms to prevent big insurer-PBM middlemen from pocketing big drug discounts meant for patients and tying out-of-pocket medicine costs to pre-discounted list prices to failing to address allegations over billions in Medicare overcharges and AI-automated claims denials, AARP’s lack of aggressive engagement in holding big insurers accountable spurs more questions than answers.
All of this is important because AARP has evolved into a financial and political goliath, and its business relationship with UnitedHealth is no small affair. Nor are the concerns over the potential conflicts of interest this presents in terms of AARP’s advocacy and lobbying agendas. The organization now earns more than $1.1 billion a year in corporate royalties, most of which is attributable to UnitedHealth alone. All told, it is estimated that AARP has been paid well over $7 billion from its commercial deal with this single insurance and health services giant. It’s notable in this context that the company also happens to have the nation’s largest market share of Medicare Advantage customers.
These mutual political and financial benefits and agendas binding Democrats and big insurers like UnitedHealth and AARP together have led to increased scrutiny. Recent polling from McLaughlin & Associates of older Americans and AARP members demonstrated that a majority of voters 55 and older don’t agree with many of the organization’s positions or trust AARP on many levels due to its political alignment and corporate relationships.
No wonder AARP is trying to rebuild its trust. Older voters and candidates in New Hampshire should be very mindful to remember to always ask, AARP advocates for who, exactly?