AARP has long played a dual role. It advocates for the interests of seniors, and it makes money allowing its name to be used in selling them private insurance, including coverage known as Medigap, which supplements government-provided Medicare. The group gets a 4.95 percent royalty each time someone buys Medigap insurance with the AARP brand. The Medigap insurance policies bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year and are among an array of AARP-endorsed products that generate slightly more than half of the group’s $1.4 billion in revenue, according to tax records and people familiar with the group’s operations.
But in last year’s negotiations over the federal debt ceiling, President Obama and top Republicans discussed proposals to change Medicare that could have reduced AARP’s revenue from Medigap. At the time, AARP lobbied against the proposals, congressional aides say. Now, political observers predict that those measures will be back on the table in the coming weeks as Democrats and Republicans wrangle over a deal aimed at avoiding the “fiscal cliff” of dramatic tax increases and spending cuts set to kick in at the end of the year.
“There is a potential conflict of interest,” said Marilyn Moon, a former senior AARP official who runs the health-care program at the nonprofit American Institutes for Research. “Any way you look at changes in Medigap that people are talking about, I think it’s good for beneficiaries, and anybody who is opposing that who claims they are looking out for beneficiaries, you have to wonder why.”
AARP executives dispute any financial motive, saying the group’s all-volunteer board considers only what is best for its membership.
“They stand to gain nothing from AARP’s financial success or failure,” said David Certner, the group’s legislative policy director. “They are motivated by nothing more than a heartfelt desire to ensure that every American can age with dignity. AARP does not calculate or consider any potential financial ‘impact’ of policy options on AARP because they are not relevant to our policy decision-making process.”
AARP officials point to other instances when they say they argued against their financial self-interest and on behalf of seniors — for example, opposing the privatization of Medicare and Social Security, even though the group could have profited by lending its name to new insurance products.
Limits on Medigap
Among the entitlement proposals being debated by policymakers is a change that would limit Medigap coverage, with the aim of lowering the overall cost of Medicare. The measure would move catastrophic coverage from Medigap to Medicare and force seniors who buy Medigap coverage to pay a deductible and co-pays.