November 16, 2009

Washington Congressman takes aim at AARP over health care reform

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Congressional Republicans took on the 40-million member AARP after it endorsed health care reform legislation a couple of weeks ago, and Rep. Dave Reichert of Washington has been among the most vocal critics of the senior-advocacy organization. Reichert says the AARP has a “conflict of interest” because its affiliations with insurance companies could drive business to those groups. And AARP makes money off those relationships.

President Obama made much of AARP’s endorsement of the health care reform bill earlier this month, saying it should rebut criticism that the proposals would hurt seniors. The bill passed the House by a narrow margin a few days later.

Now, reports McClatchy correspondent Les Blumenthal in the Tacoma News Tribune, the Bellevue Republican has asked the Washington state insurance commissioner if AARP should be regulated because of the supplemental Medicare insurance it helps market to members. AARP earned $650 million last year by endorsing insurance policies, credit cards and other products.

Reichert, Blumenthal writes, has “emerged as the leader of a group of House Republicans that has AARP in its sights.”  The organization, which has 940,000 members in Washington state, says it shouldn’t face regulation because it’s nonpartisan, doesn’t endorse and doesn’t give candidates money.

It could be a risky play for Reichert, long mentioned as a possible challenger to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, the powerful Democratic incumbent. Democrats would love to pick off Reichert himself next year, and his is a suburban district that could be vulnerable.

“Mass membership groups like the NRA and AARP can bring a lot of heat,” said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent analyst whose Rothenberg Report is well known in political circles. “Getting in a fight with them is a calculated risk.”

Congressional Quarterly, reporting in October on Reichert’s increasingly vocal opposition to AARP, noted the history of the Republican Party’s relationship to AARP:

“Congressional Republicans and AARP leaders have been increasingly at odds for several years. The group supported President George W. Bush and congressional Republicans’ 2003 Medicare drug prescription plan, but then fell out over Bush’s plan to create private retirement accounts within Social Security.”

AARP says it can take its lumps. In a separate interview with a Michigan newspaper, that state’s director says Republican criticism comes with the territory.

“We’ve been around long enough to know that politics is a contact sport, and we’ve gotten criticized from both sides for our advocacy positions,” Steve Gools said. “Our members are not gullible but are an educated and engaged group.”

— Rita Hibbard

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