- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2003

Television commercials have been airing across Virginia recently featuring 1950s TV personality Art Linkletter praising U.S. Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. for his vote last year in favor of a prescription-drug benefit plan for older Americans.

The ads are sponsored by United Seniors Association Inc., a Fairfax-based group financed in large part by the pharmaceutical industry. The prescription-benefit plan mentioned in the ads was a Republican package that was backed by drug companies but criticized by Democrats, health care activists and mainstream seniors’ groups as not offering much real benefit for older Americans.

The commercials, like ads United Seniors ran last year to promote the drug plan, are running in several other states. The fill-in-the-blanks script, posted on United Seniors’ Web site (www.unitedseniors.org), asks viewers to “Thank Congressman (FirstName LastName) for his leadership and tell him you are counting on his vote.”

Mr. Goode, Virginia Republican, did not sponsor nor authorize the spots. He said in an interview that he is not familiar with United Seniors nor its financial backers but that he does support a prescription-benefit plan for seniors.

Mr. Goode disputed critics’ assertions that the plan he supported last year would not have helped seniors very much. “I disagree with that,” he said. “It would have helped a lot of people in the 5th [Congressional] District.”

In response to a telephone call seeking comment, United Seniors’ Chairman and Chief Executive Charles W. Jarvis, faxed a message attacking the nation’s largest seniors’ organization, the AARP, for opposing last year’s Republican plan.

Mr. Jarvis’ fax contained no information about United Seniors’ financial backing by the pharmaceutical industry. It said that because of the AARP’s opposition to the plan that United Seniors supports, “I won’t comment any further on the details of our bipartisan ad campaign.”

AARP spokesman Steve Hahn said the plan praised in United Seniors’ commercials is one that “Medicare beneficiaries would not have supported” and one that “didn’t do anything to really bring costs down” for seniors.

The plan passed by the House would have allowed Medicare beneficiaries to sign up for prescription-benefit plans offered by private insurance companies. Those benefit plans would have been required to pay a portion of Medicare beneficiaries’ prescription costs, subject to various restrictions and deductibles.

The Leadership Council of Aging Organizations — a coalition of 47 seniors’ groups including the AARP — backed a Democrat-sponsored plan in the Senate that included fewer deductibles and restrictions, and would have created a competitive bidding process to bring prescription costs down. The bill did not come up for a floor vote.

The AARP has 33.5 million members and derives its funds from membership dues, advertising in its publications and royalties on products that use the AARP name, Mr. Hahn said.

The group does not receive contributions from corporations or trade groups, he said.

The pharmaceutical industry provided about a third of United Seniors’ $9 million in revenues in 2001, according to financial statements filed with the Internal Revenue Service, which were examined by AARP researchers.

United Seniors describes itself as a “nonpartisan, 1.5 million-plus nationwide grass-roots network.” However, Mr. Jarvis and other staff members have longstanding ties to Republican election campaigns and causes.

During the 2002 congressional elections, United Seniors was the nation’s biggest spender on political TV ads, paying nearly $9 million for ads mainly supporting Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign-spending watchdog group.

The flap about United Seniors’ backing by the drug industry is the latest contention concerning the group, founded in the early 1990s by Republican direct-mail fund-raising maven Richard A. Viguerie.

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