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New AARP chief Rand takes charge in tough times

Bob Moos Dallas Morning News

At the age of 64, when most corporate executives are preparing to retire, A. Barry Rand accepted the job of CEO of a 41 million-member organization: AARP.

Rand brings to his new position a lifetime of corporate successes. During his 30 years at Xerox Corp., he rose from a sales representative to executive vice president for worldwide operations and was known for recruiting women and minorities and helping them climb the corporate ladder.

After leaving Xerox, he became chief executive of Avis Group Holdings Inc., making him among the first blacks to lead a Fortune 500 company.

Rand took over the top post of the nation’s largest advocacy organization for people 50 and older last month. He arrives as retirees have seen their nest eggs crushed and as other members in their 50s and early 60s have lost their jobs and health care and are now looking for work to tide them over until they can afford to retire. As the recession has deepened, two of AARP’s long-standing priorities, financial security and health care reform, have moved to the top of the national agenda.

The new CEO recently sat down with the Dallas Morning News to talk about how the advocacy organization is helping its members and others through the hard times.

Q: How would you describe the mindset of your members at the moment?

A: There’s been so much shock and pain that people are asking: Are we seeing a redefinition of the American dream? Is this what we can expect from now on? Our answer at AARP has been: We can’t let that happen. We must make sure the American dream continues as it always has. That’s why we’re focused on guaranteeing financial security and low-cost, high-quality health care for all.

Q: The recession has forced retirees to resume working and compelled others to delay retirement. Yet people in their 50s and 60s sometimes face age discrimination. What is AARP doing to make the workplace more age-friendly?

A: We offer legal counsel for people who think they’ve been victims of age discrimination, but we have also formed relationships with employers who understand the advantages of hiring older workers. These companies, which can be found on our Web site (, appreciate the fact that they can pare training costs by employing people who are already experts at customer service.

Q: Many older adults want to finish out their working lives by taking jobs with some sort of social purpose, like working at a nonprofit community agency or teaching. How is AARP helping them fulfill those ambitions?

A: Community service, whether as a volunteer or for pay, is something we’ll emphasize more as time goes on. We already have 9 million members who are volunteers. But we’ll do more to assist people who want to have some larger purpose and contribute to their communities. We’ll refer them to groups needing their talents. AARP will become the go-to place for information.

Q: Many people who are too young to qualify for Medicare can’t buy affordable private health insurance because they have one or more chronic illnesses. What can be done for this vulnerable group of midlife workers?

A: Pre-existing medical conditions can be a major problem for people who aren’t part of group health insurance plans, and health care reform needs to address this. People shouldn’t be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition. They should be able to enjoy a health care package similar to what Medicare now offers its beneficiaries.

Q: The government’s number crunchers worry about Medicare’s financial solvency. How can its costs be brought under control?

A: Medicare is just one piece of the health care system. We need to study every possible way to cut health care costs and simplify the overall system. That means looking at how we purchase prescription drugs, going after fraud and abuse, encouraging health care providers to become more efficient and simplifying medical bills so that patients can understand them.

Q: What should be done about Social Security’s long-term financial viability?

A: AARP worked hard against proposals to privatize Social Security four years ago. That’s important to point out. Just imagine where Americans would be today if Social Security were in the same shape as their 401(k)s. So, we’re strong advocates of maintaining Social Security’s solvency. But we also don’t want the younger generations to bear the entire burden.

Q: Is it time to raise the eligibility age for Social Security benefits again to account for people living longer?

A: That should be part of the debate, but it’s too early to advocate any particular approach. We want every side heard and every idea discussed. I don’t think guaranteeing Social Security’s solvency will be as complicated as reforming the health care system, because there are fewer alternatives and fewer stakeholders than in the health care system.

Q: Is this nation prepared for the “age wave” of 78 million baby boomers? What most concerns you?

A: Americans need to change their views on aging and longevity. They need to view retirement as just the next phase of life and a time when they can become more engaged in their community. I see AARP’s mission as helping people sort through their hopes and dreams and decide what to do next.

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