A battle for hearts, minds and supplemental Medicare dollars is under way on computer screens and in mail boxes of senior citizens across the country..
Challengers, including one with top executives on Long Island, are leaning on their conservative political credentials to lure older Americans away from AARP.
Washington-based AARP is the market's 600-pound, silver-haired gorilla. The not-for-profit dwarfs its competitors, boasting a paid membership of almost 38 million as of February and revenue of $1.7 billion, according to its 2020 financial statement. That includes royalty revenue of $1 billion, notably $752.4 million from health products and services, for using the group's name and logo to market products. Its biggest co-branding relationship is with health insurance provider UnitedHealth Group Inc.
Though AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, insists it is strictly "nonpartisan," the group came into the crosshairs of conservatives for its stand on the Affordable Care Act more than a dozen years ago.
By contrast, its rightward-leaning rivals are relatively small: the Association of Mature American Citizens — founded by a Long Islander — claims 2.4 million members, while the Florida-based American Seniors Association has 50,000.
AARP's scale is built on a large and growing senior population. In 2019, 65-plus Americans numbered 54.1 million, about 16% of the population, according to a Department of Health and Human Services report. That compares to 4.1% in 1900 and a projected 21.6% in 2040.
The demographics provide a big target for conservative challengers.
Pollster Gallup tallied 18 separate polls to find that in 2020 about 36% of Americans identified as conservative, 35% as moderate and 25% as liberal, roughly the same as in 2019.
A 2019 study by a professor at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, however, found that Americans' political views tend to migrate toward the right as they age.
The research, using surveys from 1974 to 2018, found that among 25-year-olds, 33.7% identified as liberals, 40.5% as moderates and 25.8% as conservatives. Those percentages shifted to 24.9% liberal, 39.3% moderate and 35.8% conservative among 45-year-olds. By the time the respondents reached the age of 75, the study found, only 19.8% identified as liberal, while 39.2% identified as moderate and 41% as conservative.
AARP, AMAC and ASA gear their services for Americans aged 50 and over, but membership is available to younger people who want a headstart toward retirement.
Challengers on the right
The nation's polarized political discourse provides an added lever for AARP's competitors.
Rebecca Weber is chief executive of the for-profit Association of Mature American Citizens, founded by her father in 2007 as a conservative alternative to AARP.
AMAC's headquarters are in Leesburg, Florida, but she oversees the organization from offices in Bohemia. Her brother, David Weber, also based in Bohemia, is chief operating officer and chief marketing officer.
"We're clear about who we are," Weber said. "People who join AMAC believe in American values and...the sanctity of life."
Alongside car rental, credit card and supplemental Medicare insurance deals, AMAC offers a podcast where Weber interviews conservative figures.
AMAC's website and smartphone app serve up provocative headlines aimed at a conservative readership: "The sneering liberalism of [outgoing White House press secretary] Jen Psaki," "The left is terrified of Elon Musk," "COVID-19 authoritarians panic over the end of mask mandates" and "New York Times chooses Passover and Easter to mock God and the Bible."
By contrast, the AARP Now app offers a relatively subdued mix of service stories: "Staying hydrated can prevent heart failure in old age," "Older black and Hispanic Americans feel discrimination by health providers," and "Costco, Sam's Club or BJ's?"
Cover stories of AARP The Magazine typically feature 50-and-over celebrities: "Liam Neeson: Age-Defying Action Hero," "How Halle Berry Found Her Groove," "Michael J. Fox Is Ready For Whatever Comes Next."
Still, AARP, helmed by chief executive Jo Ann Jenkins, has become a lightning rod of the political right.
Obamacare tipped the scales
Anoop Rai, a finance professor at Hofstra University's Zarb School of Business, said that while AARP has generally maintained a non-partisan stance, a single piece of legislation tipped the perception of parts of the public.
"It's their support of Obamacare early on that gave them the image of being liberal and pro-Democrat," he said. "My impression is that the overall membership...is probably center and left of center."
By contrast, he said, "AMAC members are probably very strong Trump supporters."
Obamacare, officially known as the Affordable Care Act, was signed into law in March 2010 and AMAC's Weber said that AARP helped push the legislation past the finish line.
"AARP did work as an extension of the Democratic White House in 2009 and 2010 when AARP came out in favor of Obamacare," she said.
Charles R. Taylor, a marketing professor at Villanova University's school of business, said that as the most visible advocate for senior citizens, AARP walks a tightrope.
"Wading into political issues where there are strong differences of opinion among the membership that don't relate directly to the broad interests of the group as a whole are a recipe for criticism, and potentially, losing members," he said.
A March 2011 report from two Republican members of the House Ways & Means Committee took aim at AARP's support of the ACA.
Specifically, the report charged that AARP had a conflict of interest because the legislation "could result in a windfall for AARP that exceeds over $1 billion during the next 10 years" as seniors shifted their health insurance coverage.
In an August 2012 response to that report, AARP acknowledged that the White House sent an email to the organization asking it to intervene with a key senator on behalf of the legislation, but that charges of financial gain were based on faulty financial assumptions.
"To be clear, AARP did not attempt to analyze the impact of any health care reform legislation on our royalty income for the simple reason that the answer would not have influenced our advocacy priorities or decisions," AARP's then-president Robert G. Romasco said.
The statement said that AARP's policy was consistent with a long-standing effort to widen health care coverage for older Americans.
"No one dictated our advocacy strategy to us," he said.
AARP did not respond to a request to provide an update on how passage of the ACA affected its finances.
An AARP spokesman added: “We advocate for policies that are in the best interests of seniors without regard to how it impacts any of our licensing agreements, as we’ve demonstrated time and again by fighting for health insurance reform, against an Age Tax on older Americans, and against rolling back protections for people with pre-existing conditions – to give just a few examples."
Still, AMAC's Weber said her organization saw a bump in membership after passage of the ACA.
"Those people leaving AARP due to their support of the ACA sought an alternative and found AMAC," she said.
Weber said that from 2010, when the ACA was signed, to 2012, AMAC's dues-paying membership went from 100,000 to 500,000.
The home page of another AARP rival, Sarasota, Florida-based American Seniors Association, brands itself as "the conservative choice" and AARP as an advocate "for the liberal left" and "Big Pharma" and "Big Insurance."
Will Schlotthauer, president of the ASA, said that AARP has succeeded in positioning itself as the sole source of services for seniors.
"People didn't know there was an alternative," he said.
While the ASA also seeks to sell products and services — including insurance through licensed brokers with which it shares revenue — he said, AARP's relationship with UnitedHealth limits consumer choice.
AARP's partnership with Minnetonka, Minnesota-based UnitedHealth Group began in 1997 and has been extended to at least 2025.
In its annual report for the year ended Dec. 31, UnitedHealth reported that it provided Medicare Advantage coverage to 6.5 million people through all sales channels and Medicare Supplement policies to 4.4 million people through AARP.
Broad array of benefits
AARP, AMAC and ASA all offer discounts, services and programs.
AARP arguably has the broadest line-up of member benefits, ranging from an online job board to restaurant discounts to cruise vacations.
In the hotel and resort category alone, AARP has more than 90 online listings. AARP even offers members online computer games.
AARP also sponsors local events such as defensive driving classes, a Debbie Gibson virtual concert and a series of free "Talk with a Doc" events in May, June and July with the Long Island Health Collaborative.
AARP, which evolved from the National Retired Teachers Association, charges annual dues of $16 — discounted to $12 in the first year with automatic renewal — versus $16 for AMAC and $15 for ASA.
While AMAC is a for-profit company, ASA is structured as a state non-profit, but not as a tax-exempt federal non-profit, which has more stringent requirements.
AARP is organized as a 501(c)(4) social welfare not-for-profit, which means it operates to promote social welfare and not to make a profit.
Accusations that AARP makes political donations to Democrats — or any political party — have been denied by AARP and debunked by fact checkers at USA Today, which found that doing so would jeopardize AARP's tax-exempt status.
Though AARP does not contribute to candidates, AARP employees are free to do so.
OpenSecrets, a Washington-based research group, calculates that so far in 2022, Democrats have received $19,280 from AARP employees versus $2,320 for Republicans.
In another case, fact-checkers at PolitiFact, owned by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, found that an August 2019 Facebook ad by AMAC stating that AARP supported "federal funding for Planned Parenthood" was false.
A 501(c)(4) organization, however, can lobby Congress and state governments on issues aligned with its social mission.
In 2021, AARP spent $13.7 million on lobbying, up from $8.3 million in 2020, according to OpenSecrets.
Much of the lobbying was on legislation related to health care and the finances of senior citizens.
AMAC Action, a lobbying affiliate of AMAC, also is organized as a 501(c)(4). The group spent $331,600 on lobbying in 2021, up from $117,988 the prior year, according to OpenSecrets.
While ASA does endorse candidates, policies and programs, it does not lobby or make financial contributions to candidates, Schlotthauer said. ASA, however, is affiliated with United Seniors for America, a nonprofit that is allowed to lobby and make political contributions.
In an August 2012 position paper, AARP said Republicans have questioned its motives when it fought against privatizing Social Security and Democrats did the same when it supported adding a drug benefit to Medicare.
"If both sides are upset with us it just means that we’re doing our job," the organization said.
Quiz: What You Don't Know About Seniors
1. Which has the largest percentage of 65-plus residents?
b. Puerto Rico
2. Rank the following states by percentage of residents 65 and over?
a. West Virginia
e. New York
3. What percentage of the 65-plus population is still in the labor force?
4. We're born with about 300 bones, but older Americans have:
a. About 450 because we're constantly breaking our bones.
b. About 300 if we get sufficient calcium through a regular intake of pizza.
c. About 200 because our bones fuse together over time.
1. b (Puerto Rico leads with 21.3%, followed by Florida. Arizona is comparatively youthful with 18%.)
2. d (Maine is the state with the largest 65-plus population by percentage at 21.2%, followed by Florida, 20.9%, West Virginia, 20.5%, and Vermont, 20%. New York, 16.9%, sits in the middle of the pack nationally.)
3. c. (Some 9.8 million older Americans were in the labor force in 2020, down from 10.7 million in 2019.)
4. c. (As you read this, your bones are fusing.)
Source: 2019 data from the Administration on Aging, a unit of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Cleveland Clinic.