AARP Readies New Push for a Medicare Rx Drug Benefit
Behind its new executive director, "marketing whiz" Bill Novelli, AARP is planning to launch an "extensive lobbying push and grassroots campaign" this month to press President Bush and Congress to create a Medicare prescription drug benefit, National Journal reports. The nation's biggest lobbying group for seniors, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, put its campaign for a drug benefit "on hold" following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But with congressional elections coming in November, Novelli said that AARP will "aggressively remind" lawmakers that the problem of high prescription drug costs for seniors with limited or no drug coverage has not receded. He said, "We're going to go in for the biggest possible package that we can," despite the recession. National Journal reports that Novelli, who became the head of AARP in June, is "considered a pioneer in 'social marketing' -- the art of changing people's views and behavior through marketing techniques." As founder of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Novelli designed a series of anti-smoking ads that, according to the campaign's current president, Matthew Myers, "helped frame the debate, and helped make this new organization an important voice in the debate."
Advocates of a Medicare drug benefit hope Novelli can use some of the same techniques to push their cause. But to do so, Novelli will have to shed an image of AARP as "complacen[t]" that arose in the 1990s. National Journal reports that the organization's influence fell in the late 1980s after it backed a law involving catastrophic coverage for Medicare beneficiaries that also contained a limited drug benefit. Soon after the law's passage in 1988, seniors realized that the benefit carried a high deductible and that premiums were income-based, leading to a backlash that resulted in the repeal of the law in 1989. AARP, however, continued to support the measure, leading "thousands of angry seniors" to cancel their memberships. One health care lobbyist said, "Since that time, AARP has been essentially allergic to providing any leadership on public policy matters, including matters pertaining to Medicare. It's as if the organization doesn't in any way wish to cause any strain in relationships with any portion of its membership." According to a Democratic aide, this lack of leadership has hurt Democratic efforts to add a drug benefit. "If would be helpful if AARP would be assertive in taking positions. ... If they would just take a stand, we could know where they are," the aide said.
Mindful of this perception, Novelli said shortly after assuming his new position that AARP would "keep recommending more and more specifics as we go along." He also said that the organization might write its own version of a drug benefit bill. National Journal reports that in recent years, several other advocacy groups -- such as the AFL-CIO's Alliance for Retired Americans -- have emerged to push for a drug benefit for seniors. But none can match the clout or resources of the 35-million-member AARP, whose grassroots efforts now include offices in every state capital. Novelli and John Rother, AARP's director of policy and strategy, said that the organization, following up on its 2000 strategy to get candidates to offer support for a drug benefit, will "work against" certain members of Congress if a benefit is not passed by November. "If there's no action in Congress, I think there will be consequences in the elections," Rother said.
Nevertheless, AARP faces a political and economic climate in which passing a Medicare drug benefit could prove difficult, National Journal reports. "[T]here's been some talk" that President Bush will include funding for a benefit in his fiscal year 2003 proposed budget, but "the amount is expected to be considerably less than the $300 billion that some activists were hoping for last year." Now that the budget surplus is gone, lawmakers may look for other ways to reduce prescription drug prices, such as discount cards or making it easier for generic drugs to reach the market, National Journal reports. Congress, for instance, may "reopen" the 1984 Hatch-Waxman Act in order to "clos[e] loopholes that have allowed brand-name companies to delay the introduction of generics." While Novelli acknowledges that discount cards and patents will be present in this year's debate, he says that a direct benefit to Medicare should not be ruled out. "We're going to keep pushing the envelope," he said (Serafini, National Journal, 1/5).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.