TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Kai Ryssdal: Whenever the public debate turns to something as consequential as health care, there are often more questions raised than there are answers given. Not surprisingly, those questions can be pointed. Earlier this week some Republicans in the House of Representatives posed one to the lobbying group AARP. That's the organization formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons. The AARP does a good deal more than just lobby, though. It lends its name to insurance polices that it brokers and nets hundreds of millions of dollars from. The AARP is also on the record supporting health-care reform. So the GOP wanted to know whether the group might have more than a passing conflict of interest.
James Thurber's a professor of government at American University. Good to have you with us.
JAMES THURBER: Good to here.
Ryssdal: This claim that is being made about the AARP that they are actually an insurance broker as well as a lobbying group, is that accurate?
THURBER: Yes, it's accurate. They are an advocacy group, they are a group that helped the aged, but they also make money by selling insurance and other products.
Ryssdal: Conflict of interest there or no in your mind?
THURBER: I think there's a conflict of interest if it's not transparent to the American public about how much money they're making from the arrangements that they have with insurance companies. And I don't think it's been that clear.
Ryssdal: And the amount of money is substantial.
THURBER: Well, the AARP makes some estimates, they say they make about 60 percent of their income from those kinds of arrangements.
Ryssdal: They partner with some really well-known insurance companies. United Health is certainly one. I mean these are big names.
THURBER: They partner with some very major health companies. The health insurance companies would like to partner with them. They're eager, they're probably selling their products frequently to them coming by, to talk to them about that. They are the largest interest group in the history of the United States, and that is a very big market -- 40 million people for insurance.
Ryssdal: That's an amazing statistic.
THURBER: It is. And they are very powerful. They will be at the table; they have to be at the table when it comes to Medicare. And any kind of health-insurance reform. They have to be at the table for Social Security. And you know what, they're watching 38 percent of the entire budget of the United States that goes to the aged, and they want more, they don't want less for their members, and it's understandable.
Ryssdal: The group says that they are acting in their members' interest when they do things like come out and support health-reform bill, and also that these products that they license through their Web site and lend their name to, are also screened for being appropriate for their members. Do you find that to be believable?
THURBER: There are 40 million members. They do a lot of different things for all of them. They certainly give them good guides to health care. But I don't have an independent way of judging whether their screening of these organizations is thorough enough.
Ryssdal: When they support health-care reform, and they do, they are on the record as supporting some of these bills, is it, do you think, in the public interest, or in their private interest?
THURBER: Ah-ha. The public interest. The public interest is something in everyone's mind that is quite different. They say they are lobbying for the public interest, for the public interest of the aged, the retired, the people who can't help themselves that are sick. But, you know, they also have a private interest involved here with their affiliations with insurance companies and medical-device manufacturers, so it's a mix of both the public interest and the private interest, in my opinion.
Ryssdal: If they came out today and laid all this out on the table so that everybody was aware of it, would the problem disappear?
THURBER: I think the problem disappears when you have transparency in what you're doing. When you try to cover something up, you're in trouble. And I think that they should lay it out more clearly. And they may lose some members, but so be it.
Ryssdal: James Thurber. He's the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington D.C. Thanks so much for your time.
THURBER: Thank you.
Ryssdal: We called the AARP to confirm our characterization of their position -- that they offer only products and services they believe will be to the benefit of their members. They said we got that right. But they also said they've been facing this kind of criticism for more than 50 years. A spokesman said, and here I quote, "Our advocacy positions drive all of the work in our products and services, and we would gladly forego every dime of revenue we receive in exchange for a health-care system that works for everyone."