Senior advocacy. AARP -- A-A-R-P organizing for leveraging political muscle on issues affecting older voters. We're questioning AARP's National Vice President Nancy LeaMond and Iowa's Kent Sovern on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: AARP is a political heavyweight. Certainly older adults aren't monolithic. Their political persuasions are as diverse as any other demographic slice of American voters. But among voters 50 and older some common issues resonate strongly. AARP is increasingly converting that commonality into political muscle. And for insight we have invited AARP's National Vice President Nancy LeaMond and Kent Sovern who heads Iowa's office. Welcome to Iowa Press.
Sovern: Thank you, Dean.
LeaMond: Thank you.
Borg: And people may be wondering why are you calling it AARP rather than the American Association of Retired Persons but I think you dropped that name, didn't you?
LeaMond: We did. In the 1990s we dropped the name because most of our members were in fact not retired. We have members over the age of 50 and most of them work.
Borg: And, Kent, AARP is not your name either, it's A-A-R-P.
Sovern: That's right. We remind volunteers -- the first lesson in AARP as it was when I took the reigns of the state office a year ago is that it is A-A-R-P, yes.
Borg: And across the Iowa Press table Iowa Public Radio host Sarah McCammon and the Gazette's James Lynch.
Lynch: Vice President LeaMond, let's start by talking about -- we've talked about AARP and when people hear that a lot of them think Social Security. Is that a good association? Or is there more to AARP than just simply advocating for Social Security?
LeaMond: Well, it's a good association and there is more. We work on Social Security and Medicare a good deal of the time. But also really on any of the major issues that people over the age of 50 care about. We know Social Security and Medicare are front and center but so too are issues related to retirement security and, in fact, the issues that I'm visiting Des Moines this week to discuss which are how our communities can become more age friendly.
McCammon: Nancy, you mentioned lots of issues there but do you think your members turn to you for political guidance for your opinions on the issues? Or are they more just looking for insurance and some of the other services that you provide?
LeaMond: Well, the truth is our members are looking to us for a range of things. We know they are interested in the information we have on a range of subjects. We know they are interested in discounts. They are interested in how we can help them save money, not only with discounts but also through some of the advocacy we do. But we know that absolutely they are interested in the issues of Social Security and Medicare and increasingly so as those become on kind of the front burner in Washington and across the country.
Borg: As I introduced you I alluded to AARP flexing its political muscle. And perhaps that is best illustrated by two commercials that your organization broadcast across the nation last year during the congressional debate on setting priorities and raising the ceiling of the national debt.
LeaMond: Well --
Borg: We're going to see those right now.
AARP Commercial: I'm a grandfather, a retired teacher and I count on Social Security. Here's what I'm not -- a pushover. Some in Washington want to make a deal, cutting the Social Security and Medicare benefits we worked for. With billions in wasted loopholes how could they look at us?
AARP Commercial: But I am a voter. So Washington, before you even think about cutting my Medicare and Social Security benefits here's a number you should remember -- 50 million. We are 50 million seniors who earned our benefits and you will be hearing from us today and on Election Day.
Borg: You know, that may be called flexing political muscle, Ms. LeaMond, but it also sounds like a threat. You'll be hearing from us.
LeaMond: Well, it's not meant as a threat but I think the reality of what we heard from our members over the course of the debate about the deficit and that was the view that people in Washington, lawmakers in Washington were not really listening to them in the course of the discussion. And particularly this year, a year divisible by four, our members, I think all Americans over the age of 50 are really focusing on what the candidates are saying about these issues. And AARP, you mentioned us in terms of the information we provide, during the election cycle our members look to us in terms of voter engagement in two ways. First is to press candidates to tell them specifically what they would do about Medicare and Social Security and some other issues. So press the candidates to be very clear about their positions. And then secondly to make sure once we have pressed the candidates that we let all of our members know what the positions are.
Borg: Kent, did you see that commercial as somewhat threatening though? You've got a whole group of people standing behind the man that is addressing the camera and the implication is, we'll get you if you don't help us.
Sovern: Well, Dean, they are us. They are the boomers and the 50 plus population and remember those commercials were done in the context of a very tough deficit reduction and debt service or debt limit debate. Since then we have moved on and we have a new effort called You've Earned a Say where in fact we have turned to our members, we have provided a forum, several dozen of them across Iowa, in fact, we're into a 100 day cycle in this You've Earned a Say effort where we're holding community events all through the state. Our members and all 50 plus, in fact, we're even having some of these opportunities for the young professionals to come to us, we lay out a few facts on Social Security, a few facts on Medicare and then say, what are you thinking? Tell us what you're thinking. It is a listening situation, a listening post, a listening proposal and we've taken all of that information through online questionnaires, through individuals, about a million so far have responded and the oral conversations that people are having in this You've Earned a Say and this effort is providing a massive amount of information that then we're feeding back to those people who want to represent us in the future.
McCammon: Speaking of younger workers, your members are over 50 and the ads point out that they have paid into the system and earned their benefits. But younger workers are working now and paying into that same system which the trust fund for Social Security expires or runs out in 2033, Medicare in 2024. What can be done to make sure those programs are sustainable and equitable for younger workers?
LeaMond: Well, one of the things we've heard as we've had these conversations across the country from our members is they want to see the programs sustainable for their kids and their grandkids, the point you raised. And this has been a very powerful message that we have gotten. What we hope is that as we emerge from the election we can see a renewed bipartisan effort to come together and look at ways that these programs can be strengthened for future generations, particularly with Social Security. We know -- we know from the last time reforms were instituted that you can look over a long period of time and make some of the changes that are not as dramatic as if you have a very short period of time to do it.
Lynch: How do you do that? I mean, what options would you support? Or do you have any flexibility at all? I mean, when we talk about means testing, raising the retirement age, longevity indexing, what options are you willing to embrace?
LeaMond: Well, Kent may want to talk about this more. This is precisely the conversation we're having now in the You've Earned a Say meetings across the country and that is to present to our members and to others over the age of 50 -- and frankly we've had a lot of sessions in university settings as well with students -- is to talk through the seven, eight, nine proposals that have been put forward on both sides of the aisle of how we can, how we can make the program more sustainable. We're going to take all this information and then come back with our own, our own set of ideas of how we think we can move ahead. But this has been a very useful step for us to take to really go out and talk to people.
Lynch: So you haven't taken a position on any one of those options yet is what you're saying?
Sovern: Actually at the national level they have provided some great -- they being AARP National -- has provided us with great resources and have farmed out these I believe twelve different Social Security options and fifteen or sixteen different Medicare options that are, if you will, on the table. And they have asked the Brookings Institute on the one hand and the Heritage Foundation on the other hand to respond to these things. And where we have been able to -- we have actually put a monetary influence on that. So to your point, if we can only pay 75% of benefits come 2036 what would be the impact of option A or B or C on either extending and lengthening the life of that system or shortening it? Those kinds of simulations and that sort of thing we'll be placing before our members over the summer as well, again, getting them real hands on experience about judging these options, one against another and then telling us, again, telling us what they think about the parameters that are acceptable within those options.
Borg: We should say, acknowledge right now, that we're taping this program, this conversation with you on Tuesday, June 26 and we are anticipating that before this program is broadcast the U.S. Supreme Court will render its decision on the Affordable Care Act of the Obama administration. How, Ms. LeaMond, did AARP feel about the Affordable Care Act? Did you support it unilaterally in all aspects of it?
LeaMond: Well, we supported the Affordable Care Act but importantly we felt that there were some very key benefits for our members. So for those over the age of 65 the Affordable Care Act ensured that Medicare was stronger financially, it began to deal with the problem of fraud, waste and abuse, which most Americans believe is very, very, very serious. It provided a very important benefit for prescription drug costs which are the single highest cost on the mind of the average Medicare recipient. So far about three million people have gotten that benefit.
Borg: So, overall you supported it pretty much.
LeaMond: We did.
Borg: And we don't know what the Supreme Court is going to do about that.
LeaMond: We don't know, not yet.
McCammon: On the issue of health care there has been a push over the last couple of years to professionalize and improve the workforce, the direct care workforce for people who care for older adults, higher standards, better training, more accountability. How do you do that without further increasing health care costs? And those are hurting recruiting for this field that, as I understand, already faces shortages.
Sovern: Well, as a matter of fact I believe that this will increase, if you will, the desirability for people to enter into the profession and the professionalism of that workforce. Folks already provide training whether it be the in-home care workers or the institutional care workers. The training requirements that we're asking for are very minimal. But the most important part is those training elements, that professionalism is transferrable to the individual. I came from college as an elementary school teacher and a school administrator. The certifications there were mine and I could carry those to any school district that I worked in. Likewise, we hope that those people that are prepared to care for our most in need citizens, our greatest need individuals will be able to carry that professionalism and carry that certification beyond a particular employer or a particular institution.
Borg: It's laudable that you'd want a certification as a means of accountability. But also isn't it going to limit the people who actually access that field and fail to certify? And doesn't that affect the care that you're trying to provide for older adults?
Sovern: Well, I believe that the initial care is fairly easily applicable, how to lift, how to care for folks that are in need and so forth, basic kinds of minimal standards of care. Now, what -- through the various groups that we're working with -- what they have provided is, if you will, a broad scope of curriculum that may be delivered through the community college system, that may be delivered through institutions or professional organizations one way or another that would provide, if you will, a whole range of certifications from basic entry level kinds of things all the way up to profound Alzheimer's care and the like.
Lynch: The direct care issue is one of your priorities during the last legislation session, another one where you focused a lot of your energy and brought a lot of members to the Capitol was on nuclear power, a bill that would have I guess drew your opposition because of the advanced rate making role in that. That is an issue that you have been successful in blocking for the past two years but it sounds like it will be back in some form again next year. Do you continue to oppose that nuclear power bill?
Sovern: Well, again, it's not about nuclear power for us. It's about the way that new plants, new facilities, new infrastructure are financed. Do we want to approve a system that really turns the whole idea of investing in utilities on its head so that all of the risk, if you will, is borne by the rate payers and all of the reward by the investors. We have had subsequent to the legislative session conversations, phone calls with some of our friends at MidAmerican Energy and we are providing an opportunity, a forum for us to begin discussions about whether there is a win-win solution for this. But if you're asking, will we continue to oppose advanced rate making or CWP, Construction Work and Project, proposals to fund these plants before all the planning, the construction on the front end, my guess is yes.
Borg: And Ms. LeaMond, that is where I think many people are confused because AARP is known as an older adults organization and yet they're weighing in on an issue that is way beyond what you would think is confined to older adults. Isn't it getting a little bit far afield from your original purpose?
LeaMond: No, not really. And, in fact, we're working on utility issues, not all of them just like the issue in Iowa. We're working on utility issues in about 31 states across the country. Back to the earlier question of interests of our members, they are so focused on pocketbook issues, what it means to them in terms of their monthly, the amount of money they have every month and so they are very, very focused on utility rates, energy costs and the fact that it affects their kids and their grandkids is in our minds also very good.
Borg: Well, then let me get into something you alluded to earlier and that is something called Community For All Ages. That is a priority of your organization but I don't know what that is.
LeaMond: It is. Well, it is a priority. You know, by the year 2030 every state in the country will have dramatically increased the number of citizens over the age of 65 as we boomers reach our own age 65.
Borg: Yes, and we have communities like Scottsdale, Arizona and places in Florida that cater to older adults and they tend to gather there.
LeaMond: Well, there are communities where people are moving but about 80% of people now over the age of 50 if you ask them if they want to move to another community will say no, I want to stay where I am, near my kids, my grandkids, my friends and so increasingly communities are going to have to deal with the implications of a changing population. And when we talk about it we don't just talk about communities for older Americans, we want to talk about communities that are livable for all ages.
Lynch: I want to follow up on that because in our community it seems like we're continually having a task force looking at how to attract the young professionals, sort of the next generation of business leaders and community leaders. Are these goals mutually exclusive?
Sovern: No, I think they're very complimentary. As a matter of fact, here in central Iowa we set out fifteen years ago through the Greater Des Moines Partnership and the work of all of the communities here in central Iowa to be, to, if you will, upgrade our position on all of those rankings. And Iowa as a whole and central Iowa particularly has done a terrific job. Over in your area, Johnson and Linn County have done a sustainable communities effort for the last three or four years and what we know is that if we look at the intergenerational opportunities, if we look at the social engagement, as Nancy said, people overwhelmingly want to actively engage in their communities, in their homes for as long as possible. If we, in fact, create communities for all ages, what is good for, if you will, the senior, curb cuts and that sort of thing, is also good for the young family that is pushing a stroller as well. So we're looking for multi-trails, we're looking for built environment, the social capital and how we continue to engage seniors actively whether through employment, volunteer work, the civic engagement and that sort of thing, absolutely vital to creating these communities for all ages. And finally, do you have the full range of health care services? And is all this information communicated in a way that is easily accessible and easily understandable by a full range of folks?
McCammon: Those all sound like great ideas. How do you pay for them?
Sovern: Well, we will be convening again -- convening folks of all ages, getting their ideas. Now, a lot of this will be done by the private sector. As more and more folks that are 50 and above access services, shopping, retail, all of the private sector services or health care services, how will the built environment and how will those services be conformed to better address that? There will be public sector investments needed as well but we don't know what those are yet. Certainly one of the major issues or major challenges is what to do about housing and where should housing be located. How should it be designed to be inclusive of people of age and to include the neighborhood and to be outward looking rather than inward looking? Those are all very exciting concepts. That is why we have the Iowa chapter of the Architect's Association involved, the Iowa chapter of the American Planning Association involved because these will be key practitioners that will give us advice and we can bounce ideas off of.
McCammon: You mentioned a moment ago keeping people engaged longer. We are seeing people live longer. We're also seeing people work later, past retirement age, sometimes because they want to, sometimes because they need to thanks to the recession in some cases. What obstacles do you see to working longer? And how is that going to affect the workforce as a whole?
Sovern: Well, I'm not sure the obstacles of working longer. There are folks whose work life is very, very tough. Menial -- manual labor, not menial labor, excuse me, manual labor and certainly for those folks -- there are folks in public safety whose jobs are on the line every single day and to think of extending their work life into their 60s and 70s I think is a bit problematic whereas I'll be 64 in August, I'm very happy and very excited to be a part of this new organization and working forward and I don't see quite the same stress level that perhaps someone in public safety would. So I think it will be an individual choice. But as you said, some are in the workforce by choice, by some it is by necessity.
Borg: Ms. LeaMond, Sarah used the word obstacle. I think what she means by that is as people find it necessary or even desirable, one or the other, to work beyond the normal retirement age there may be some impediments. Are you interested in removing those impediments to being employed longer because it has implications for the other side of your demographic group and membership because it takes jobs away that could be given to someone who is still up and coming?
LeaMond: Well, one thing we found is that there are a growing number of companies in the United States that have become much more flexible in their hiring practices, their work practices. We actually do an award every year for the best companies for workers over 50. And what we're finding is there are more part-time positions, there are more phased retirement positions and companies are realizing they need some of that talent, they want to have mentorship programs as they are bringing up younger workers in the organization so we're urging companies to be very flexible about it and to utilize these opportunities. One of the other major areas of concern and perhaps an obstacle, certainly in the minds of most people, is age discrimination. And I wanted to mention that we're working on a piece of legislation that is very unusual, it's bipartisan with Senator Grassley and Senator Harkin to restore some of the provisions of the age discrimination law. And age discrimination starts -- the law will cover people over the age of 40. So as we think of older workers as 65 or 70, for purposes of this legislation it is 40. We are very pleased about that. We just did a recent survey and found about 70% of people over the age of 50 believe there is age discrimination of some kind in the workplace. We think that is an obstacle and we want to confront it.
Lynch: We've got a presidential race going on. Vice President Biden is in the state today and tomorrow. But we've got a couple of AARP eligible candidates running for president. Perhaps you see that as a good thing, no doubt. But you talked earlier, Ms. LeaMond, about listening to the candidates and what are you listening for and what are you going to be telling your members or advising them as this race goes on? I don't think AARP endorses a candidate, do they?
Lynch: Okay, but what are you telling your members?
LeaMond: Yeah, and I should say we are non-partisan, we do not endorse and we do not give PAC money. And so what we do is press the candidates to talk and give us specifics about what they would do for programs that are important to us so Social Security, Medicare. We're in the process now of pressing candidates for president and for other offices in that regard. Then what we're going to do is we will send to every one of our members and we'll have on our web page a voter guide on these major issues and the positions of the candidates. And I should say that when we talk about the candidate's positions we're using the candidate's own words, what he or she has said about the issue. We're not characterizing them or trying to put something in a little box with a check mark.
Lynch: Do you like what you're hearing? Are you hearing things that sound good to AARP?
LeaMond: Well, we're starting to hear the candidates talk more about it but we feel as the race goes on we're going to have to press them for much more specificity and we hope to do that. We'll do that in debates, we'll do that in town hall meetings where we'll have our members and our staff ask them questions and hope that at the end of the process we'll have a pretty clear understanding of what they would do if they were elected.
Borg: I know Sarah will want to follow up here in just in a second, but I wanted to insert something. You said you're not partisan.
Borg: And you don't have PAC money and so on. And yet there is another organization called 60 Plus that calls themselves an alternative to AARP because they feel AARP is too left leaning.
LeaMond: Well, left and right I think is in the eye of the beholder and what we have always said is we don't, the positions we take are not governed by whether they align with democrats or republicans, these are positions that are really what we feel delivers most for our members.
McCammon: What do you think is most important to your members in this election, quickly?
LeaMond: Economic issues and for people over the age of 65 economic is Social Security and Medicare. For 50 plus it's also work, retirement security, not just Social Security but Social Security and health care.
Borg: We're out of time, I'm sorry. Thanks for being with us today.
LeaMond: Oh, thank you.
Sovern: Thank you.
Borg: We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next weekend, usual times, 7:30 Friday night and a second chance to see the show Sunday at noon. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.