- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2003

BOSTON (AP) — Senior citizens angry over the AARP’s endorsement of the Medicare bill are ripping up or burning their membership cards and flooding the lobbying group’s Internet message board with complaints in what could be the biggest revolt in its ranks since the 1980s.

Many fear that the Republican-backed bill approved by Congress on Tuesday will harm senior citizens, and say the AARP — the nation’s most influential retiree lobby, with 35 million members — sold them out.

The bill “destroys one of the most successful programs in the history of this country,” Isaac Ben Ezra, president of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, said as he led a demonstration of about 40 people here against the bill on Monday. “Shame, AARP.”

AARP Chief Executive Officer William Novelli said Wednesday that 10,000 to 15,000 members have quit over the bill.

John Rother, policy director at AARP, said the bill was not perfect, but it was a step forward, and that the organization will continue to try to improve the law.

“We were either going to get something now or else it wasn’t going to happen for many, many years to come,” he said.

The law, pushed by President Bush, is the biggest change in Medicare since its creation in 1965, and includes a new prescription drug benefit for 40 million older and disabled Americans. Supporters say it was long overdue; detractors say it was a giveaway to insurers and drug companies.

The law sets up competition between traditional Medicare and private plans, beginning in 2010. Activists worry that will lead to the privatization of Medicare and place the elderly in the hands of “insurance sharks” more concerned about profits than quality medical care. Elderly people also have questioned the AARP’s motives, because it has a for-profit arm that earns royalties from the sale of health insurance.

AARP endorsed the plan about a week ago as it headed toward congressional approval. The group’s support was welcomed by Republicans and criticized by the Democrats, who predicted a revolt within the 45-year-old organization.

“It’s a firestorm out there. I am absolutely convinced that on this issue AARP doesn’t speak for their membership,” said Edward Coyle, executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans, which represents more than 3 million retirees.

The dispute could open a generational rift in the AARP: Many of the angriest protests have come from the elderly, at a time when the AARP is aggressively recruiting baby boomers before they reach their golden years.

Mr. Novelli said the AARP had conducted extensive research that showed that younger members were more likely to support aspects of the Medicare bill, and he said that had played a role in the organization’s decision to support it.

He speculated that younger members increasingly are getting stuck paying the drug bills of their parents, and that that has made them more aware of skyrocketing prices and more determined to do something about the problem.

He also said younger members are more comfortable with the competition provided for in the bill — largely because they are accustomed to getting their benefits from private insurers.

A third of the AARP’s members are under 60.

In West Palm Beach, Fla., Sam Oser, 77, a retiree, organized a protest in his retirement community and burned his AARP card.

“The more we thought about the Republican plan — the more we thought about it, the angrier we got and we felt the AARP was really selling us out,” he said.


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