Reforming AARP: Stop Squandering an Immense National Health Resource

Published January 1, 2011

Today, roughly 40 million Americans belong to AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons. AARP’s vision statement boldly describes “a society in which everyone lives their life with dignity and purpose, and in which AARP helps people fulfill their goals and dreams.”

AARP’s mission statement “is to enhance the quality of life for all as we age, leading positive social change, and delivering value to members through information, advocacy and service.”

To realize its vision and accomplish its mission, AARP publishes magazines, newsletters, and an elaborate Web site; sells health-related and other insurance; supports programs to provide discounts to its members for travel; and conducts a major initiative promoting its extensive public policy agenda. This latter activity involves a very significant and costly political lobbying effort aimed particularly at Congress and the presidential administration.

All told, AARP’s budget probably exceeds $1 billion. It is arguably the nation’s largest and most powerful single voice, with the potential to encourage the betterment of American lives. But instead, it has turned itself into the nation’s largest special-interest group.

Stop Money-Grubbing

Looking at a copy of AARP’s The Policy Book, AARP Public Policies 2009-2010, I was appalled! Five-hundred-plus pages of legislative recommendations covering seemingly every aspect of life filled the pages. Nowhere was there an estimate of the cost of implementing these recommendations. It was an endless list of goodies and government controls. According to AARP, the people they represent need and want cradle-to-grave largesse.

The nation’s health care bill is too big and growing, and our nation’s debt is huge and growing. Yet according to AARP, what Americans need are more entitlements, including long-term care, free drugs, and more government programs.

No one national organization has such a golden opportunity to improve the lives of millions of seniors, give younger Americans the tools to become healthy seniors, and save the nation and individuals hundreds of billions of dollars. But it would take a massive change in direction for AARP to realize this opportunity.

Bettering Lives for Members

AARP communicates to more than 40 million citizens, most over 50 years of age. From the perspective of individual health and quality of life, this group uses an enormous amount of health care services. Yet far too little is said about what this group can do for itself at little to no cost. Even the AARP Magazine has pointed out that “people 50 years and older who exercised for at least 30 minutes three or more days a week actually saved $2,200 a year on medical bills.”

Multiply this figure by just one-half of AARP’s membership and you come up with $44 billion in savings. In 2010 the savings from this change of habits would exceed $50 billion. In 10 years this would amount to more than one-half trillion dollars–coincidentally, the same amount of Medicare cost cuts built into Obamacare.

Driving Change in Older Communities

AARP could help make this happen by using its megaphone not to demand more in entitlements and services, but instead to drive personal changes that improve quality of life. AARP can mount a multifaceted campaign toward this end, helping foster a society in which everyone lives their lives with dignity and purpose.

Underscoring this campaign would be the realization that individuals are the most important part of the program. Individual lifestyle decisions make possible the achievement of the goals of this campaign.

This is where AARP plays the critical role, with a communication power unparalleled by any government agency.

Improved quality of life means more days with no problems “getting around.” It means a concentrated drive to decrease obesity, resulting in lessened joint pain and other chronic pain. The aim of lengthening people’s lives and avoiding or delaying assisted living or nursing home care would help spare families the problems and costs of providing long-term care to incapacitated family members and friends. Everyone wins.

Communication Is Key

AARP publications, consistently delivering the message, can change behaviors. By redirecting its focus in this way, AARP would become a fixture in quality-of-life discussions. Researchers would be attracted to looking at the outcome of this incredible contribution to the health of individuals and the nation.

AARP’s role in society would be viewed not as elderly people demanding money from youth, but as an active community focused on improving life and reducing health care costs.

AARP health insurance programs such as Medicare gap policies need to be revised to provide discounts for those practicing a healthy lifestyle. Rewarding individuals for positive behaviors is an obvious next step, and such discounts have proven very successful in private industry. If government regulations are creating roadblocks, AARP must lobby for changes in the law–for once, not just in support of more economic redistribution.

It is time to stop asking government and younger people for more. Now is the time to ask, “What can we do for our country?” AARP can be the leader in this. AARP needs to answer the question: Can we find ways to improve lives without spending and taxing more? Yes, we can! Yes, AARP can!

Stuart A. Wesbury, Jr. ([email protected]) is professor emeritus of the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.