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David Irwin

Speaking for seniors at the statehouse

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If you watch the evening news or read the blogs, you may be familiar with David Irwin, the young government affairs director for the AARP of Idaho, who, in just six months on the job, has elevated the concerns of Idaho retirees to newsworthy status. Idaho seniors, nearly half of whom are AARP members, emerged as a third rail during the recent legislative session, irking lawmakers who attempted to score political points by attacking federal health-care reform efforts. Irwin took down names, telling 180,000 AARP members in Idaho who voted for the anti-reform Idaho Health Freedom Act.

Irwin, who worked as a staffer at the Washington State Legislature and has served the AARP in three other states, is still taking names, preparing an AARP voter guide for the November elections.

You must be new here.

I've been with the AARP now for seven years. I've only been in Idaho now for six months. I actually started with AARP as an intern, out in Seattle. I met my wife out there ... I started working with AARP in their New York legislative offices, in Albany. And then, I took another job in Chicago with AARP, the next position up the rung. Then we had a little one in Chicago, and we were living in this tiny little shoebox of a condo right smack in the middle of downtown Chicago, with a postage stamp-sized park, and we said, "Boy, let's look at some options." I'm from Seattle and her dad's from Pocatello, so we moved out here and love it.

I've never seen a spokesman for an Idaho organization have such a high profile as you had during a legislative session. Usually groups here have very little to say.

I noticed that when I got here. I can tell you from having worked for AARP for a while, our members aren't really quiet people. They have a pretty loud voice and they like to let it be known. When you're hearing from me or from our state director, that's really the voice of our members. We've got 180,000 of them here, we're the largest membership organization in the state. The majority of our members vote. We just did a recent survey that found 90 percent of them are registered to vote, 83 percent of them vote in almost every single election. It's a powerful group and they wanted to be heard. A lot of them, for one reason or another, didn't really know a lot about what was going on with the state Legislature.

Were you communicating to members significantly during the session?

Yeah, from the time we got here, we set up an 800 number for them around budget issues and put them in touch with their legislators that way. We've got a pretty significant e-mail system set up that gets us to about 80,000 of our members who have said they wanted to be contacted. So we send them an e-mail on issues and say, "We just want to keep you in the loop ... here's the position of the AARP and here's what's going on."

Did you get a response from legislators?

We got some response from the majority of legislators this year. They were very good at listening to what we had to say. We took some stands on some pretty tricky issues this year, on some pretty big issues this year, from the Idaho Health Freedom Act to the health conscience bill to the no COLA [cost of living adjustment] bill. So we took a stand on some pretty heated issues. The legislators listened to us. They may not have liked everything that we had to say. We made a very early decision to very aggressively oppose the Idaho Health Freedom Act because we felt that it was bad policy, that its intended and unintended consequences could be pretty vast and dire for the state of Idaho, and we went after them on it. We made it an accountability vote. It's the first accountability vote that AARP has ever done in Idaho. They didn't like that because we let our members know exactly who voted which way and what the implications of that may be and our members paid attention to it. It's not an approach that legislators like, anywhere you do it.

How many legislators are members?

Somebody just came out with a statement, I want to say it was The Times-News down in Twin. They have a breakdown and I want to say it was something like 83 percent [82 percent] of them are of age. Our membership starts at 50; 48 percent of all individuals in the state who are over 65 are AARP members.

A lot of them are NRA members, too. Did membership come up?

It's interesting, depending on the issue. If it was around the Idaho Health Freedom Act, take a stab in the dark on that one, we got some resistance. "I am an AARP member, I disagree with your position."

We had somebody say they were resigning their AARP membership from the House floor during that debate.

That seemed like one of the hallmark bills of this legislative session. Does your membership have a position on the national health reform bill that the Health Freedom Act was a reaction to?

The press for health insurance reform was one of the largest campaigns that AARP has undertaken in our history since the time that we pressed for a prescription drug benefit in Medicare. And at the national level, this debate and this issue was just as heated for us as the Part D benefit in Medicare.

Look, we had a job to do and that was: Let's not get caught up in the politics and the rhetoric of this, but let's keep focused on what the facts are. The facts in Idaho were that we don't have a looming health-care crisis. We've got a health-care crisis that has hit home and that needs to be addressed. Is the way to address that by standing on a soapbox and taking a position against a nonexistent federal health-care law, which the state legislation could have a dire impact on individuals' ability to access health care? It could set our health-care system back at the state level and prevent people from getting the relief that they needed under the federal law. So we took a very hard position on that and it was a position that was supported by what our membership indicated that they wanted. They didn't come out and tell us, "We don't like the Idaho Health Freedom Act," but they did come out and tell us in no small way that, "We've got health-care problems here that we need addressed."

What do seniors in Idaho face in terms of insurance?

What they are facing right now is a Medicare system whose solvency is at risk. We've got a drug benefit under Medicare which has helped 32 million Americans have affordable access to prescription drugs for the first time. In that Medicare plan, there's a doughnut hole, it's a coverage gap. About 30 percent of Idahoans over the age of 65 that are on Medicare were falling into that doughnut hole and when they fell into that they had to pay 100 percent of the costs of their prescription drugs. When someone has to pay full price for their drugs, it's extremely expensive and a lot of them stop taking their drugs, they start cutting their pills or they take less than the prescribed amount and that creates a big problem.

For our membership, they were concerned about their health-care scenario. They were also concerned about the health-care scenario for their children and their grandchildren, who they were seeing struggle with high costs and a lot of children and families having to go without insurance because it was too expensive.

What about education? Some older folks in Idaho have said they don't want to pay for schools.

We did not address any education issues this year. The one issue that we did tackle that had to do with education was all of the retired teachers that were going to lose out on a pension. That was the biggest one that they wanted us to address. Whether they were a retired state employee or not, whether they were a retired teacher or not, they didn't think that it was fair that while all their other costs were soaring, that they were not going to get a modest, 1 percent increase [COLA], that for the first time in the history of Idaho there was a legislative effort to deny it simply because state employees weren't getting a raise.

What do you do now after the session, to follow up on your demands?

We are nonpartisan, but we're actually establishing right now our voter education. We're going to do some very substantial voter education this year. We're planning on doing a voter guide for every single legislative race, for the governor's race, as well as for the congressional races that are up. We're going to be asking some key questions ... The other thing that we move into now is the health insurance law is now passed at the national level. We've got to undertake a massive education campaign for the public and for our members and make sure they know exactly what's in it and exactly what the benefit is and answer any questions that they have.