AARP'S policy wizard -- John Rother, director of policy

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To say John Rother has been busy lately would be an understatement. As director of policy and strategy at AARP, the largest seniors organization in the world, Rother has crafted some critical healthcare positions in recent months. They include the association's stance on a federal budget proposal with cutbacks for programs for the elderly and Social Security privatization (AARP opposes both of these ideas).

"It's an intense time," agrees Rother, who has worked for the 35-million-plus member organization since 1984.
Rother's position makes him one of the top influencers on aging issues, including many that affect skilled nursing, as well as other forms of long-term care.
 "He is the dean of aging-related advocacy in Washington," asserts Larry Minnix, president of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, who adds that Rother is a strong supporter of the quality care movement by nursing homes.
One sign of Rother's effectiveness: He has successfully introduced AARP's belief in homes and community-based needs into the long-term care discussion.
The wizard behind AARP's policy statements says he has always wanted to work with the "big" issues of the day.
"I was the straight-laced kid who went to law school and tried to change within the system. And I guess I still am," he says. A former staff director and chief counsel for the Senate's Special Committee on Aging, he also facilitates the dialogue surrounding AARP's global aging agenda.
The healthcare system needs a lot of changing today, he says. Medicaid cuts represent one of the most serious problems. The federal-state program, which funds most of nursing home costs, is "headed for crisis," he says.
"We take the threat to Medicaid very, very seriously and we've been very active in trying to steer changes away from arbitrary budget cuts towards things that can be justified in terms of policy," he explains.
While the association agrees with the long-term care community on Medicaid reform, the groups part ways on certain other subjects, such as tort reform. Unlike the provider camp, AARP believes there should not be specific caps on damages in malpractice lawsuits.
Taking sides on issues is part of Rother's job description. But that is not always easy. AARP's promotion of the Medicare Part D prescription program, which is set to take effect in January, drew a lot of criticism from its own members.
Many in the long-term care sector also did not initially support the bill because it did not clearly specify how it would affect low-income elderly. This problem is currently being worked on.
Rother's unwavering beliefs have earned him the respect of the healthcare community, according to Steven Chies, chairman of the board of the American Health Care Association.
"He hasn't made enemies," Chies says. "He has made people disagree with him, but he is pretty straightforward with what he's trying to accomplish. You got to love that in an opponent or an adversary."
While his responsibilities are huge, the man behind AARP's policy curtain does not crave the limelight, according to Chies.
"He's clearly going to be a player and decision maker on how the vision is going to be crafted going forward," Chies says. "But he's also the guy who doesn't want to be at the top of the ticket, in the spotlight."
Rother can thank serendipity for his current career. While practicing labor law legislation for former Sen. Jacob Javits (R-NY), he was tapped to handle healthcare after the senator's healthcare point person quit unexpectedly. It's been the dominant part of his work since. It also led him to Chris, his wife of 11 years. Chris was crafting health policy for former Sen. George Mitchell (D-ME) when she met Rother.
A movie and history buff, Rother inherited his love for social change from his dad, a former chaplain at American University and activist.
Rother was a devotee of Ralph Nader as a college student at Oberlin (OH) in the 1960s. Nader, in fact, inspired him to go to law school.
Ironically, the man who is at the forefront of decisions regarding retirement has no plans to retire himself. Rother says when he does quit his day job, he hopes his legacy will be a country that is a better place to grow old.
"The job is never finished but what you hope for is improvements in programs like Social Security, like long-term care and healthcare." he says. "They really do kind of shape what people's opportunities a