AARP collects royalties, fees from insurers it endorses

Allegations made of misleading ads and conflicts

By Gary Cohn and Darrell Preston
Bloomberg / December 5, 2008
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NEW YORK - Arthur Laupus joined AARP because he thought the nonprofit senior citizen advocacy group would make his retirement years easier. He signed up for an auto insurance policy endorsed by AARP, believing the advertising that said he would save money.

He didn't. When Laupus, 71, compared his car insurance rate with a dozen other companies, he found he was paying twice the average. Why? One reason, he learned, was because AARP was taking a cut out of his premium before sending the money to Hartford Financial Services Group, the provider of the coverage.

Laupus stumbled onto something that many members of the world's largest seniors' organization don't know: The group, formerly called American Association of Retired Persons, collects hundreds of millions of dollars annually from insurers who pay for AARP's endorsement of their policies.

The insurance companies build the cost of these so-called royalties and fees, which amounted to $497.6 million in 2007, into the premiums they charge AARP members, according to AARP's consolidated financial statement for that year.

AARP uses the royalties and fees to fund about half the expenses that pay for activities such as publishing brochures about health care and consumer fraud - as well as for paying down the $200 million bond debt that funded the association's marble and brass-studded Washington headquarters.

In addition, AARP holds clients' insurance premiums for as long as a month and invests the money, which added $40.4 million to its revenue in 2007.

"At the end of the day, it's all about fattening the coffers of the organization," says Thomas Orecchio, who was chairman of the Arlington Heights, Ill.-based National Association of Personal Financial Advisors until September. AARP, he says, is sponsoring insurance for its members at inflated prices.

"It's the dirty little secret," he says.

During the past decade, royalties and fees have made up an increasing percentage of AARP's income, rising to 43 percent of its $1.17 billion in revenue in 2007 from 11 percent in 1999, according to AARP data.

Laupus, a former teacher in Baltimore, and millions of others joined AARP in the belief it would provide discounts, services, and publications. The organization ranks behind only Consumer Reports and the American Red Cross as the most trusted large group that influences US politics and business, a 2007 Harris Poll found.

AARP has helped millions with tax returns, estate planning and health care advice.

With stock markets around the world plunging, savings plans in turmoil, and medical costs soaring, older Americans need an advocacy organization in their corner.

"The turbulent economy puts more people in the difficult situation of being under- or uninsured," says Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley. "That's why we need to make sure individuals aren't taken advantage of with misleading marketing, especially by a name brand advocate who carries a high level of trust."

Grassley sent letters to William Novelli, AARP chief executive officer, and state insurance commissioners Nov. 3 inquiring into whether the AARP misrepresented what is covered by some health insurance policies it sold. Four days later, Novelli announced AARP would review its marketing and suspend sales of those policies.

AARP's mission to help seniors has been compromised by its reliance on royalties and fees, says Marilyn Moon, who was director of AARP's Public Policy Institute from 1986 through 1989.

"There's an inherent conflict of interest," she says. "A lot of people there are trying to do good, but they're ending up becoming very dependent on sources of income."

Novelli, 67, has broadened AARP's reach and increased its clout in Washington. He has expanded AARP's marketing to include 17 types of insurance. The association collects royalties on each of those products. Its membership rose to 40 million from 35 million, and its total revenue grew to $1.17 billion in 2007 from $520 million when Novelli took charge.

Nowhere were AARP's conflicting roles more evident than in its lobbying in support of a 2003 bill proposed by President Bush to expand Medicare, the federal health insurance program for people older than 65.

The bill, which for the first time added a prescription drug plan to Medicare, passed by a vote of 220-215 in the House of Representatives and 54-44 in the Senate. Thousands of AARP members complained that the legislation was a bad deal for seniors because it provided incomplete coverage and raised costs for seniors with low incomes.

After the Medicare bill was signed into law by Bush in December 2003, AARP was able to expand its contract with Minnetonka, Minnesota-based UnitedHealth Group Inc., which underwrites AARP's Medicare supplemental insurance plan.

AARP advertises that its Medicare supplemental insurance can save people thousands of dollars. While every type of supplemental policy sold by all companies must offer the same exact coverage under federal rules, AARP doesn't sell the least expensive.

The AARP/UnitedHealth basic policy costs $582 a year more than a lower-cost competitor in New York and $428 more in Los Angeles, according to data on Medicare's webpage.

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