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With polls showing seniors are the most skeptical about the health care reform bills working their way through Congress, President Barack Obama sought to ease some of their concerns during a town hall meeting with a little high-powered name-dropping.
The name: AARP.
Several times at the town hall in Portsmouth, N.H., on Aug. 11, Obama specifically mentioned AARP's support for health care reform. It's little wonder why: The AARP is the country's largest and most powerful advocate for seniors.
"We have the AARP on board because they know this is a good deal for our seniors," Obama said at one point.
And later, in response to a question about whether the health care plan would reduce the availability of medications through Medicare, Obama said, "Well, first of all, another myth that we've been hearing about is this notion that somehow we're going to be cutting your Medicare benefits. We are not. AARP would not be endorsing a bill if it was undermining Medicare, okay?"
It was that last comment that caught the attention of AARP executives. Not the part that AARP would not support a bill that undermines Medicare benefits. That's true. It was the suggestion that AARP had formally endorsed any particular version of the still-evolving health care plan working its way through Congress.
AARP chief operating officer Tom Nelson immediately fired off a press release saying that "indications that we have endorsed any of the major health care reform bills currently under consideration in Congress are inaccurate."
The rebuke likely confused a lot of AARP members who have read or heard numerous AARP statements in recent weeks that have supported various aspects of the health care plan.
Just a few weeks ago, on July 14, the AARP issued a press release gushing about the introduction of the House health care reform bill saying, "This bill would make great strides for all of our members and their families." The group said it was pleased with the legislation for giving "every American has access to affordable, quality health care choices."
Specifically, the release said the bill would make prescription drugs less expensive for seniors, would block insurance companies from denying coverage based on age, and for capping out-of-pocket expenses for some insurance plans. AARP did not explicitly say it was endorsing the bill, but there was not a single negative comment in the statement.
In a July 14 ad sponsored by Healthy Economy Now — a coalition including AARP, the American Medical Association and the pharmaceutical industry, among others — the tone was decidedly upbeat. "The president and Congress have a plan to lower costs and stop denials for pre-existing conditions," the ad says. "It's time to act."
The following day, AARP released a statement about the version of the bill being debated in the Senate. This time, the group was slightly less complimentary; while it said most parts of the legislation were good, AARP remained concerned about a provision in the bill that would prevent some generic drugs from entering the market faster.
Since then, the climate in the health care debate has taken a decided nasty turn, with a deep and clear divide between Republicans and Democrats. But AARP spokesman Jim Dau said AARP was not reacting by tempering its stance.
He said AARP supports a lot of changes that both the House and Senate bills would make, such as making drugs cheaper for seniors and ending discriminatory practices against the elderly, but the group has been clear all along that it has not endorsed any of the big bills.
"We have endorsed specific measures," Dau said. "We're praising the pieces that we think are good for members."
Dau pointed to a statement made by AARP CEO Barry Rand during a July 28 town hall meeting with Obama.
"I want to make it clear that AARP has not endorsed any particular bill, any of the bills that are being circulated around Congress today and debated in Congress today," Rand said. "We continue to work with the members on both sides of the aisle, and we continue to work with the administration to achieve what is right for health care reform."
Nelson echoed that bipartisan tone in his statement after Obama's town hall this week.
"AARP has been working with Democrats and Republicans to fix our broken health care system," Nelson stated.
"AARP supports specific measures that would help older Americans and their families – including bipartisan proposals to create a new follow-up care benefit in Medicare that would help prevent hospital readmissions, as well as to address the Medicare prescription drug coverage gap known as the ‘doughnut hole.’ We also support the need for lawmakers and the administration to act this year to fix what doesn’t work in the health care system."
So was Obama incorrect to say the AARP had endorsed the bill?
The July 14 statement sure sounds to us like an endorsement, even if it didn't specifically contain that word. But in Washington, the word "endorse" means you have put the weight of your name behind an official stamp of approval for a bill, candidate or policy.
And the fact is, AARP has not formally endorsed any specific bill. It strongly supports some aspects of the bills. But that's not a formal endorsement. And in fact, Obama was present two weeks ago when AARP's CEO said the group "has not endorsed any particular bill." So we rate Obama's statement Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.
WhiteHouse.gov, Transcript: Remarks by the President in Health Insurance Reform Town Hall , Aug. 11, 2009
PhRMA.org, "House Tri-Committee Bill Would Hurt Patients and Kill Jobs," July 31, 2009
The New Republic, "Christian Group Strikes At AARP Over Health Care," by Seyward Darby, Aug. 11, 2009
Gallup, "Seniors Most Skeptical of Healthcare Reform," by Lydia Saad, July 31, 2009
ABC News, Political Punch: "President Obama’s "Senior" Moment?" by Rachel Martin and Jake Tapper, Aug. 11, 2009
AARP.org, Press release: "AARP on House TriComm Health Care Reform Bill," July 14, 2009
AARP.org, Press release: "AARP: HELP Committee Bill Marks Critical Step Toward Health Care Reform," July 15, 2009
AARP.org, Press release: "AARP Reacts to President’s Health Care Townhall," Aug. 11, 2009
Interview with Jim Dau, AARP spokesman, Aug. 12, 2009
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