A Penn caucus could be pulled together within the AARP hierarchy. Besides Novelli there are John Rother L’75, director of policy and planning, and David Certner C’80, director of federal affairs. As it happens, a second highlight of my morning with Novelli is a pitch by yet another Penn grad, Nancy R. Lewin WG’92, director of Johnson & Johnson’s Caregiver Partnership.

A few years ago, Lewin explains, Johnson & Johnson scored a big success with its campaign for nursing, a profession that had been suffering from an unglamorous image and a shortfall of recruits. Now the company wants to improve the lot of private caregivers, especially the 22 million Americans helping someone over 50, usually a relative, who is chronically ill. A survey has shown that caregivers for the elderly are 63 percent more likely to die prematurely of stress-related illnesses than people with no such burden to bear.

AARP is well aware of this problem. Information put out by its Public Policy Institute notes that the plea heard most often from caregivers is for “a little time to myself” and summarizes a Medicaid program that lets them take breaks by hiring substitutes or checking their loved ones into facilities for brief stays. More important, Elizabeth Clemmer, the institute’s associate director, has brought personal experience to the table. Her husband is at the point where he can’t be left alone when she goes to work, and she has just completed the sensitive task of hiring someone to be with him.

Despite Lewin’s zesty presentation and Clemmer’s familiarity with the issue, the AARP contingent responds guardedly. Lewin mentions the possibility of AARP’s lobbying on behalf of caregivers, something she says Johnson & Johnson is not in a position to do. But above all she is pushing an interactive website with message boards for beleaguered caregivers to vent their frustrations and share their stories, and she would like to set up links to AARP’s website. One problem is that the AARP website is a daunting affair. “We’ve got 5,000 pages,” says Mike Lee, who is second in command of the group’s 46-person web team. He frets about creating “a giant hairball of links.”

Another possible hitch is that, as Lewin freely admits, Johnson & Johnson is not a charitable institution. “Somewhere down the line, three or four years from now,” she says, “my boss thinks it might be nice if we made a little money on this. The possibilities include selling ads on our website or even introducing a new line of products, such as skin remedies for bedsores.”

Novelli replies that he worries “a bit about straddling the line between helping and maintaining the proper arms-length relationship” with a profit-making entity like Johnson & Johnson. There appears to be a subtext here. AARP itself has a commercial wing—a wholly owned subsidiary that sells its members such items as insurance, travel packages, and mutual funds. Revenue from these and other product lines accounts for about a third of the group’s income, and critics of the organization have accused it of having conflicts of interest or at least talking out of both sides of its mouth. For instance, James K. Glassman of the American Enterprise Institute charges that it’s inconsistent for AARP to oppose privatizing Social Security while peddling mutual funds, which he claims are “by any conventional standard … far riskier than anything anybody has contemplated” for Social Security investments.

Aside from the tidy sum they contribute ($350 million last year), these ventures would not be easy for AARP to walk away from: as mentioned, some of them hark back to the group’s original reason for being. Novelli has defended the services by emphasizing that AARP plows all profits back into the group’s main work of advocating social change. But his caution this morning about finding the right relationship between the giant nonprofit and the giant pharmaceutical suggests that the criticisms have had an effect.

After consulting the palm-size cheat sheet that displays his schedule for the day, Novelli says: “I think we need to get to the next step. The question is how can we connect?” A few minutes later, the meeting breaks up on an inconclusive note. AARP will designate another team, which will ponder Lewin’s ideas and arrange for a second get-together within 30 days.

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/25/05

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FEATURE: Gray is Good