TRUST BETRAYED - Inside the AARP by Dale Van Atta. Regenery Publishing, Inc. Washington, DC: 1998, 208 pp, $25, ISBN 0-89526-485-4.

Review by Del Meyer, MD

Dale Van Atta wrote a syndicated column with Jack Anderson that ran in more than 800 newspapers for over seven years. Today, he is a freelance author and journalist. He dedicates this volume to his aging mother, Vera Van Atta. We should alert our aging parents, even those under age 50, about this volume and the highly charged promotional campaign of the AARP.

The AARP is the second-largest organization in the United States, after the Catholic Church. It has thirty-three million members. Ethel Percy Andrus, a retired schoolteacher, was its founder. Steeped in the American ethos of God, country, and self-reliance, she explicitly stated that the "AARP is not a pressure group, petitioning for special privileges and exemptions because of age and numbers."

Today, the AARP supports higher taxes, disastrous health care legislation that threatens seniors, and other political causes such as attempting to defeat property tax reductions, the very thing that allows many retired seniors to keep their homes. The AARP has numerous business enterprises, including insurance and pharmaceuticals, that it claims are nonprofit services for seniors, but which are revenue engines for AARP causes and profit its business partners. Colonial Penn derives 80% of its profits from the AARP monopoly.

The AARP, with an income of more than $400 million a year, spent $83 million for salaries and benefits in 1994. Nineteen of the AARP's 1,732 employees earn more than $100,000 a year. The executive director, Horace Deets, headlined in a 1997 Fortune magazine profile as Washington's Second Most Powerful Man, making $357,000 a year in salary and benefits ($157,000 more than Washington's Most Powerful Man!) plus $49,000 in expenses. The block-long office building in DC, which some of its members call a Taj Mahal, reputedly cost $117 million. And in 1990, the AARP spent more than twice as much furnishing its posh headquarters than it spent on programs assisting the elderly.

Dr Ethel Percy Andrus, the founder, first spoke out against age discrimination in employment more than 30 years ago. The AARP was instrumental in securing passage of the landmark Age Discrimination in Employment act in 1967, and its attorneys have initiated or participated in high-profile class action age discrimination suits. However, this organization, once run entirely by retired persons, now employs a staff of which 80% are below the age of 50. Even its own members consider this a shameful practice that betrays their true commitment.

Not only is there age discrimination in its employment practices, but there is ethnic discrimination in its membership as well. Only 2% of AARP's members are black, 2% are Hispanic, and 2% are other minorities. With its members being mostly white, better educated, and richer than the average, the AARP explains "It's much more expensive to recruit ethnic groups than it is just your average population."

The AARP is the only lobby so powerful than it can secure legislation, such as the Medicare catastrophic coverage act, and when its own membership rebels, secure its repeal. To maintain such clout, each month the AARP solicits an estimated 40,000 individuals who are too young to join. To maintain their political and business perspective, AARP can remove chapter leaders with or without cause, even for taking a stand on a local political issue without the AARP's approval.

A day of reckoning may be on the horizon. Membership is dropping at such an embarrassing rate that in a closed-door session in July 1995, the Board agreed that they would multiply the number of households by 1.6, which increased membership by more than 2 million in a single day.

For the innocent elderly who look to the AARP to defend seniors' interests, Van Atta has a simple message: Your trust has been betrayed.