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AARP Chief Expects ‘Harassment’ Campaign

The head of the nation’s largest senior citizens’ organization said he would try to keep his group out of the political back-and-forth over the merits of a new Medicare law, even as he took a swipe at Democrats for using the law for election-year politicking.

“The Democrats are going to attack every square inch of [the Medicare law], and it’s just going to be a harassment campaign from now until November,” said AARP CEO Bill Novelli, following his appearance at a Kaiser Family Foundation forum Wednesday.

Novelli, who prompted sharp rebukes from Democrats last year for lending AARP’s support to the Republican-sponsored bill establishing a Medicare prescription drug benefit, said presidential politics are infecting the debate over the measure. Republicans have generally hailed the bill as a historic revamp of Medicare, while Democrats have warned the new law could lead to the end of a cherished entitlement program.

“This is going to be a circus this year,” said Novelli, “and what we want to do is be educators.”

Novelli also weighed in on the debate over whether new television ads paid for by the Department of Health and Human Services constitute an unlawful use of taxpayer funds for government propaganda, as Democrats have alleged.

“I don’t think it carries as much information as it should, but I don’t think it’s a political message,” Novelli said of the HHS ad.

Novelli shrugged off questions about whether those comments pit him against Congressional Democrats, who convinced the nonpartisan General Accounting Office to investigate whether the ads violate federal law.

Saying he did not want reporters to “bait” him into political statements, Novelli said, “We don’t intend to get into that. We’re going to try to stay above the fray and not get into politics.”

Responding to criticism of his support of the Medicare law as well as his backing of former President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign, Novelli said he did not believe he could be identified as either a Republican or a Democrat. “I don’t think of myself in any way as an ideologue. I don’t think of myself as right or left,” he said. “AARP is in the political center. We are nonpartisan.”

This month, Novelli said, AARP will begin its own television education campaign, which will direct seniors to call a toll-free number to order an AARP-devised pamphlet on the new law. The pamphlet, which was provided to participants at the Kaiser forum, does not appear to be slanted either for or against the new law.

Novelli also dismissed Democratic complaints that a planned 2010 pilot program that would force Medicare to compete against private health care plans — a plan known as premium support — would lead to the privatization of Medicare.

“The official position is: We think that premium support plans … will not impair traditional Medicare,” said Novelli. “My unofficial position is: They’re just blowing a lot of smoke. There’s not going to even be a pilot program.”

Despite the pilot program’s inclusion in the new law, Novelli predicted that whoever is HHS secretary in 2010 would realize it is not workable.

Novelli also said AARP would encourage seniors to enroll in the new prescription drug benefit under Medicare, even if they won’t initially see savings.

Echoing a criticism often cited by Democratic lawmakers opposed to the new law, Novelli said his organization would alert seniors to the fact that the longer they wait to enroll, the more they may have to pay to join. Therefore, AARP will be pushing most Medicare-eligible seniors to join in the initial enrollment phase, he said.

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