Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Colorado's associate state director for community outreach. Her name is Laura Bauman. This version has been corrected.

In Colorado, AARP Official Hits Road to Talk to Seniors About Health-Care Reform

While many citizens are still deeply divided on health care reform, AARP is attempting to correct myths through a grassroots campaign, such as this event held at Golden West Retirement Center in Boulder, Colo.Video by Phil Rucker/The Washington Post
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

BOULDER, Colo. -- In the battle to enact health-care reform, Morie Smile is a foot soldier.

It falls to Smile to calm the fury and correct the misinformation that has poured forth this summer and rattled so many senior citizens. From her neighborhood Safeway to town hall meetings across Colorado, she is trying to convince seniors that President Obama does not want to take away their Medicare or submit them to a premature death, that the country needs health-care reform, and that it needs it now.

When Smile, 46, the acting director of AARP's Colorado office, brought her road show to the Golden West retirement center here at the foothills of the Flatiron Mountains, she saw little of the histrionic anger that came to define the August congressional recess. Instead, she found widespread confusion about Obama's plan, as well as deep anxiety among older people, content with their health coverage, who fear they could pay the costs of universal care.

About 40 seniors were expected at the AARP health-care presentation here last week, but nearly 200 rode elevators down from their suites to attend, many carrying yellow legal pads for taking notes.

"I voted for Obama," Jane Motes, 73, a Medicare recipient, said as she wheeled her oxygen tank. "But I don't know what he's doing. . . . We've got to do something for all these people who don't have health care, but I don't understand who's going to get the shaft. Take it all away from the seniors? Well, we'll be dead soon anyways."

Even in this heavily Democratic enclave of the Rocky Mountain West -- Obama won 72 percent of the vote in Boulder County in last year's presidential election -- there is unease about his health-care agenda. And it is ever more palpable among people 65 and older, a powerful voting group that polls suggest has shifted dramatically over the summer to become solidly opposed to the reform plans.

As Obama prepares to deliver an address before a rare joint session of Congress on Wednesday, the deep apprehension among even his supporters at the retirement center in Boulder -- fueled in part by the misinformation spreading on the Internet and talk radio -- illustrates the president's challenge.

People over 65 are among the most reliable voters, particularly in midterm elections, so their opinions weigh heavily on members of Congress. About six in 10 (59 percent) of Americans over 65 disapprove of the way Obama is handling health care, with 53 percent strongly disapproving, according to a mid-August Washington Post-ABC News poll. That is a marked change from two months earlier, when a Post-ABC poll found that 41 percent of those over 65 disapproved, with 33 percent strongly disapproving.

Yet while seniors are split, AARP is not. Health care has been a hallmark priority dating back to the advocacy group's founding in 1958. AARP, which represents some 40 million Americans aged 50 and older, was an early backer of Obama's efforts to reform health care and is waging one of the more visible campaigns to win support. It has launched a multimillion-dollar advertising blitz, convened hundreds of town halls and other community events, and shipped millions of direct-mail flyers.

The Washington-based nonpartisan organization -- a conglomerate, really, that also sells discounted travel, gym memberships and insurance policies to its members -- is in the uncomfortable position of representing people who rarely are in lockstep.

AARP members 65 and older are eligible for Medicare and want to preserve those benefits. Those between 50 and 64, meanwhile, fall into a demographic in which many are uninsured or underinsured or pay some of the highest premiums, and therefore could most benefit from any government intervention that would reduce costs.

Citing AARP's support for health-care reform, about 60,000 people cancelled their memberships, although the organization enrolled about 400,000 new members during the same period.

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