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AARP Volunteers Made the Difference in the Historic Medicare Vote

Volunteers nationwide asked lawmakers to offer relief from prescription drug prices

Video: AARP CEO Lauds Activists for Fighting for Rx Bill

 

As the U.S. Senate approached its vote on legislation that could make Medicare more affordable for millions of Americans, AARP volunteers from near and far pushed hard to convince lawmakers to vote in favor of the bill.

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The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 will allow Medicare to negotiate prices for some prescription drugs, cap annual out-of-pocket costs for Part D drug plans at $2,000 annually, and continue federal subsidies on premiums for some people who have Affordable Care Act health insurance. President Joe Biden signed the bill into law on Aug. 16. The budget package includes climate and energy provisions as well as corporate tax changes.

With every senator’s vote being vital to the bill’s prospects, AARP volunteers did their best to convince their legislators to say yes. For Len Kirschner, 86, that meant catching a last-minute flight from Arizona to Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers face-to-face just days ahead of the vote. During his time as state president of AARP Arizona, which is a volunteer position, Kirschner built valuable relationships with his state’s members of Congress. He thought those connections — plus his experience as a doctor and Medicaid administrator — might help the bill cross the finish line in the Senate.

“People I know do have difficulties with their Medicare and their prescription drugs, so we're working on this,” Kirschner says. “It's the right thing to do.”

Volunteers took action nationwide

While most of the AARP volunteers who pushed for a yes vote on the bill didn't have the personal relationships with lawmakers that Kirschner has, they were just as effective because of their collective numbers, and passionate and sustained commitment to the cause of lower drug prices. Since 2019, AARP volunteers nationwide have acted more than 8 million times — via email, social media, phone calls, in-person meetings, petitions — to persuade lawmakers to allow Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices, along with other moves to make health care more affordable.

“Over the years, when we've had the opportunity to get in front of our legislators, we've been beating the drum that we need relief from [prescription drug prices],” says Lee Baker, a financial planner in suburban Atlanta who previously served as state president of AARP Georgia. Baker testified in July at a field hearing on the issue by the Senate Committee on Aging.

“This is nonpartisan," Baker says. "I don't care if you're Republican, Democrat or independent. People at home on Main Street have difficulty affording these prescriptions.”

Across the nation, AARP volunteers connected with their lawmakers to push for this issue in a variety of ways.

Mike Sopchak, of North Branford, Conn., made phone calls. Though the 72-year-old personally hasn’t faced the consequences of the runaway costs of prescription drugs, he believes it is important to get lawmakers to take action on the issue.

“Health care costs are something that affects everybody at some point in their lives,” says Sopchak, a retired telephone company outside plant engineer. “I see volunteering as an opportunity to make a difference.”

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For Nancy Koch, 72, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the issue of prescription drug costs is much more personal. She has lived with rheumatoid arthritis for decades. In recent years, prescription drug price hikes have added to her difficulties. For example, she says one of her medications jumped from being free to costing $145 per bottle in one year.

“So, that medication I simply can't take because I absolutely cannot afford it now,” says Koch, a former nurse. “That's just one of the meds that this has happened with.”

As an AARP volunteer, Koch has repeatedly talked to her state and federal lawmakers over the past six years trying to convince them to support Medicare price negotiation and other affordability issues.

“The more people that hear what's going on in the real world, the better the chance that somebody will pay attention and try to do something about it,” she says. “I still want to be this squeaky wheel to see some change.”

Capitol Hill Strike Force takes charge

spinner image jo an jenkins speaking at a press conference at the u s capitol she is flanked by senators amy klobuchar of minnesota and debbie  stabenow of michigan
AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, with AARP volunteers and Sens. Amy Klobuchar, left, and Debbie Stabenow, right, calls on Congress to pass the bill to lower prescription drug prices at the U.S. Senate on July 27.
Stephen Voss for AARP

In Washington, D.C., the most visible volunteers in the effort to pass health care legislation have been the 25 members of AARP’s Capitol Hill Strike Force. Dressed in red AARP T-shirts and masks, these activists — most of whom are retirees — go to congressional hearings and other events to make sure that when legislators are making their decisions, they are mindful of the lives that will be affected.

“The Capitol Hill Strike Force represents AARP’s nearly 38 million members, and they are putting a face on the issue,” says Gigi Hart Bessicks, grassroots manager for AARP. “The power of our membership is really the greatest power that we do have as an organization.”

On July 27, as the Senate approached its vote on the budget package, 10 members of the Capitol Hill Strike Force attended an AARP press conference to reinforce how important this bill is for older Americans. When AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins took the lectern at the news conference she was flanked by members of the strike force.

“Drug pricing and insurance are very complicated issues and, if you're going to make improvements, you need somebody who's in it for the long term,” says Tom Vollmer, one of the Capitol Hill Strike Force members who participated. “[My wife and I] spent years working it as volunteers and I think I see that with AARP, they have a commitment to seniors to be there for the long term. And that's going to make all the difference.

“[Medicare] is something that we have to address because most of us are just one serious illness away from severe financial difficulty,” he adds.

Vollmer, 75, and his wife Robin Gillette, 71, live in Washington, D.C. and have been AARP volunteers for about six years. Both joined the Capitol Hill Strike Force after retiring from jobs in information technology.

By attending hearings, volunteers remind lawmakers “that we're real people and that the decisions they make affect real lives,” Gillette says.

spinner image larry zarzecki speaks at a press conference on lowering drug prices with united states senators and a a r p volunteers
Larry Zarzecki, a retired law enforcement officer with Parkinson’s disease, speaks at a press conference to support lower drug prices, in the US Capitol, in Washington, DC, on July 27, 2022.
Stephen Voss for AARP

Challenges continue for Larry Zarzecki

Another volunteer present and who spoke at that July 27 event in the nation's Capitol was Larry Zarzecki, the retired Maryland police officer featured in the prominent AARP ads shown on television. His struggles to pay for the medications necessary to treat his symptoms from Parkinson’s disease have decimated Zarzecki’s retirement savings and led to his needing to sell his home to afford them. He said he hasn’t been able to get a new job because employers might be deterred by his Parkinson’s symptoms.

“I've basically been deemed unemployable,” he says. “I can make it through the application process. But as I've learned, when it comes time to do the oral interview and it comes out that [I have Parkinson’s] — because it's pretty obvious — it seems to work to my disadvantage.”

He says he takes 11 medications totaling roughly $3,800 per month, a $600 per month increase from what he paid three years ago.

“Prices are constantly increasing. Medicare being able to negotiate pricing will help so many people that are in my situation,” Zarzecki says. “It would be good for both the economy and the individuals to have more money to spend every now and then instead of stretching medications, or running out of a medicine and not refilling it because you can't afford to refill it right now.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated with the latest information.

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