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When AARP's Director Speaks, Lawmakers Listen

As head of the largest seniors group, William D. Novelli has the clout to effect change. He has been assailed for backing Medicare bill.

November 20, 2003|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After a one-on-one meeting with President Bush, William D. Novelli, executive director of AARP, emerged from the White House late Monday afternoon with a broad grin on his face.

Only a few hours earlier, the nation's largest seniors group, 35 million members strong, had endorsed the Republican-drafted plan to revamp Medicare. Now, Novelli had been praised, in person, by the president for the important role he and his group were playing to make the legislation a reality.

But with his support of the bill, he also became one of the most vilified people in Washington; even many members of his own group turned on him. Still, critics and supporters agreed on this much: The AARP stamp of approval made the legislation more likely to become law.

Novelli is unabashed about his rarefied position as a private citizen with considerable say over the fate of public policy. In fact, he says, the chance to help wield the colossal influence of AARP, previously known as the American Assn. of Retired Persons, was why he took the job.

"My great personal goal in life is to make contributions to solving important social problems," Novelli said in an interview Wednesday. His job at AARP, he said, was providing him with "by far the biggest" opportunity yet to live out his dream of being a catalyst for social change.

AARP's endorsement was a huge win for the president and other Republican leaders, who used it to show that the package was a good deal for seniors and would not, despite its critics, undermine Medicare. But on Capitol Hill, as the details of the bill were being considered Wednesday by a conference committee, GOP leaders worked to shore up support. They brought in former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to urge conservatives -- wary of a huge expansion of a government program -- to sign on.

Democrats said Novelli's move carried the risk that AARP members would rebel. At the impetus of Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma), 85 House Democrats planned to sign a joint letter canceling their AARP memberships.

Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) said calls from constituents to his office were running 10-to-1 against the bill.

"They know a bad deal when they see one," Berry said.

Also on Wednesday, AARP and the American Medical Assn. began multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns designed to build support for the bill. AARP ads ask people to tell Congress to pass the bill. It isn't perfect, the ads acknowledge, "but millions of American can't afford to wait for perfect."

Novelli said that although the bill fell short of the organization's hopes, he did not want to pass up a chance to get an additional $400 billion over 10 years for Medicare.

"Perfect isn't in the cards," he stressed.

Novelli's next challenge is to use the ads, AARP's state organizations, the group's publications and other resources to convince members, their children and legislators that the positives of the bill outweigh the negatives.

For AARP to take such a leadership role in trying to craft and then sell public policy shows the influence Novelli has had on the group in the last four years, since he took its helm. Since a 1988 fiasco over a catastrophic-illness benefit law, which was endorsed by the organization but was so fervently opposed by seniors that it was repealed the year after it was passed, AARP had been reticent to exert its influence.

Novelli "has made the AARP a more powerful force for social change," said John Rother, the organization's policy and strategy director and a 20-year veteran of the group. "He's not hesitant to use the power we do have through our credibility and our reach to get these things through."

For Novelli, using the powers of communication to make societal changes is nothing new. As a co-founder of worldwide public relations giant Porter Novelli, he represented clients who were working for such causes as fighting cancer, promoting the use of seat belts and encouraging charitable donations for the developing world.

He took that experience when he quit the corporate world to become executive vice president of CARE, the world's largest private relief agency, and later to fight against tobacco companies as the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

He is drawing on all that as he tries to turn AARP into a formidable force for social change. "I feel that all of that background and training has been to train me for this," he said.

Novelli said he was "accountable" for AARP's endorsement of the bill because he strongly influenced the board to support it.

He stressed that AARP did not give its blessing until the organization had helped win changes to the legislation, such as incentives for employers to continue providing benefits to retirees and a rollback -- from a national program to a six-region demonstration -- of competition between traditional Medicare and private health plans that would receive government subsidies to take on Medicare patients.

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