RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And whenever Washington considers changes in health care or Social Security, it must consider the AARP. That powerful lobby for older Americans offers many things to its millions of members, and one of them is health insurance. Some Republicans say this has created a conflict of interest for the AARP in the current health care debate.
NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY: AARP's size makes it hard to miss.
Mr. DAVID CERTNER (Director of Lobbying, AARP): One out of every two people over the age of 50 is an AARP member.
OVERBY: The director of AARP's lobbying operation, David Certner, says that comes to 40 million members, half of them 65 or over. AARP offers its members all sorts of add-on benefits they can buy, including several kinds of AARP-branded health insurance, and AARP supports the changes proposed in Congress right now. Critics say that's because the group would profit if the health care system gets rebuilt.
Here's Republican Congressman Dave Reichert of Washington.
Representative DAVE REICHERT (Republican, Washington): There is an unusual advocate for these massive cuts to seniors' health care. It's AARP.
OVERBY: The health care legislation includes big cuts in Medicare spending. Democrats call those cost savings. Reichert and other Republicans say that really means cuts in services.
Rep. REICHERT: Are they truly looking out for the best interests of seniors? Could it be that AARP has a hidden profit agenda?
OVERBY: Well, at least on this element of the bill, AARP would lose, not gain. Medicare cuts would fall hardest on the lucrative Medicare Advantage program, which is one of AARP's products.
Mr. CERTNER: We don't have conflicts of interest.
OVERBY: AARP lobbyist David Certner.
Mr. CERTNER: We are driven by our policy. Our policy drives our advocacy. Our policy drives what we do in terms of our products, and that's been the way it has been from the beginning.
OVERBY: AARP revenues show how big its insurance business is. Last year, the group collected $222 million in royalties from UnitedHealthcare. The corporation provides most of the health insurance marketed under the AARP brand. That's almost as much as AARP collected in dues from its members.
But David Mathis, AARP senior vice president for health services, says the organization offers what its members need to have, not what corporate partners want to sell.
Mr. DAVID MATHIS (Senior Vice President for Health Services, AARP): They come into the relationship knowing where that is, even though they may not agree with us and we don't always agree with them. Everybody's eyes were wide open when we entered this relationship.
OVERBY: Maybe so, but these questions of finances have been raising eyebrows for years. The two parties take turns being angry at AARP. Here's Republican Senator Alan Simpson in 1995.
Senator ALAN SIMPSON (Republican, Colorado): AARP has drifted considerably from any possible description of a "nonprofit," quote, organization.
OVERBY: And Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters in 2003.
Representative MAXINE WATERS (Democrat, California): Don't forget, AARP is making a lot of money off of the insurance companies.
OVERBY: But a recent poll suggests none of those attacks has stuck. The poll was done by NPR and the Kaiser Family Foundation. It listed seven of the biggest players in the health care debate, and it asked which ones inspired confidence to recommend the right thing for the country.
AARP easily led the list among Democrats and independents. Among Republicans, it tied for first with health insurance companies. So it's hard to tarnish AARP, in part because it's not seen as serving either an ideology or a narrow economic agenda.
Ted Marmor, a Yale professor emeritus of public policy, says that's a plus for AARP even if it limits what AARP can do on Capitol Hill.
Professor TED MARMOR (Professor Emeritus of Public Policy, Yale University): They live and die because there are 40 million people paying a small amount of money every year.
OVERBY: Forty million, many of whom may be more interested in the travel discounts than in overhauling America's health care system.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And just a reminder of some of the election news we're following this morning. Republicans won a couple of governor's races yesterday. Bob McDonald was the easy winner in Virginia. Chris Christie defeated incumbent Democratic Governor Jon Corzine in New Jersey.
In New York City, Michael Bloomberg won a third term, though the voting was much closer than expected. And in Upstate New York, a heavily Republican district, elected a Democrat to Congress, because Republicans and conservatives had been deeply divided.
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