Voices of Power: On the front lines of health-care reform

John Rother, AARP Director of Policy, talks about health care and the difficulty of pleasing all 40 million members of AARP.
By Lois Romano
Thursday, November 12, 2009

It's fair to say John Rother has been under the gun these days.

As the policy director for AARP, the world's largest organization for people over 50, Rother has been on the front lines of the health-care-reform wars -- often under siege by Republicans and by some of his group's 40 million members.

The attacks stepped up last week when AARP endorsed the House version of the reform bill, which would cut Medicare spending by $400 billion and reduce subsidies for Medicare Advantage, the public-private partnership insurance that can offer seniors additional perks. Both cuts, he said, would not affect Medicare's core benefits.

"I think that one of our main challenges today is to try to keep the record set straight about what's actually in the bill . . . and we are devoting a huge amount of resources and energy to that," Rother, 62, said in an interview.

That effort includes a blitz of e-mails, publications, ads and 150 tele-town hall meetings that have reached 6 million people, as well as another 135 live town hall meetings. "We have operators standing by right now on the 1-800 lines. We have quite an effort, all designed to help people better understand what's in the bill, what it would mean to them."

Rother joined the organization in 1984 -- when he was not a senior -- and has been an integral part of turning AARP into a powerhouse lobby and electoral voting force in the past 25 years. Today, it has an operating budget of more than $1 billion.

The nonprofit was founded in 1958 by a retired California high school principal to sell health insurance to retirees, and it soon added generous travel discounts. As baby boomers started to age, the organization grew with them -- taking major positions on legislation and eventually becoming a critical demographic for politicians.

Rother says his greatest frustration comes from the tactics used to scare seniors. About 40,000 to 60,000 members have reportedly dropped their memberships because of AARP's support of health-care reform. "The opponents of health reform have targeted this population and have . . . misrepresented the facts, and have consciously tried to scare seniors who depend on health care," he says. "So no surprise that they feel anxious, because they're hearing messages every day designed to scare the bejesus out of them."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company