The Association of U S West Retirees



Senior Federation to shut down
By Warren Wolfe
Mpls Star Tribune
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Leaders of a pioneering advocacy group that initiated bus trips to Canada for cheaper medications, then the nation's first nonprofit website for those drugs, voted Monday to dissolve.

"This is a terrible day," said Barbara Kaufman, 75, of Plymouth, chairwoman of the board of directors of the Minnesota Senior Federation. "I never expected to preside over our funeral, but the money's just not there to continue."

The federation is about $100,000 in debt and on target to raise only about $600,000 of its 2009 budget of $1.1 million, said Executive Director Ansley (Lee) Johnson. Last year's budget was $1.5 million.

Already trimmed from its peak of about 20 employees, the group laid off seven staff members last month, including Johnson, who continues as a volunteer. It now has one full-time and three part-time workers.

"The bad economy dried up some of our traditional funding," including $80,000 in sponsorships from Medica, Metropolitan Health Plan and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, Kaufman said.

"But on top of that, we're not a nation of joiners the way we used to be,'' she said. "The 'young old' -- the baby boomers -- just don't join organizations the way the 'older old' do."

The group's membership has fallen to 9,000 from more than 40,000 at its peak in the 1980s.

Members will receive ballots by the end of next week asking them to approve dissolution. If approved by the end of June, as expected, the 36-year-old group will cease operations almost immediately.

"I wish we could have some meeting for everybody so they could have a chance to express their sadness and anger about this," Kaufman said. "But we just don't have the money."

A feisty powerhouse

The federation was formed in 1973, an amalgam of senior clubs and a new metropolitan activist group targeting property taxes and other issues facing seniors trying to cope with rampant inflation. It quickly became a national model for similar state groups.

The feisty, sometimes pugnacious organization has been a power at the Legislature. Until recent years, its grass-roots lobbying efforts dwarfed those of the giant AARP, which has more than 500,000 Minnesota members.

"This is really sad news," said Hubert (Skip) Humphrey III, former president of AARP Minnesota and now a member of its national board. "The federation has been a very effective, powerful grass-roots organization. Policy makers pay attention because the federation has always been willing to stick its neck out, to say what need to be said."

The federation pioneered advocacy for pension rights, tax and health care reform and other issues, and sued the federal government over a Medicare payment system that rewards high-cost states such as Florida over Minnesota. It also publishes a resource guide for caregivers of older people and the only comprehensive guide to health insurance choices for Minnesota retirees.

The federation also operates a health care information center and Senior Partners Care, a program in which about 2,700 low- and moderate-income people on Medicare get care from doctors and hospitals who agree to take Medicare with no co-pays or deductibles. "I'm fairly hopeful that we'll find some partners to take over that and some of our other key programs," Kaufman said.

A drop in support

The federation's membership began dropping in the mid-1990s. It got a temporary bump from all 50 states in 2003 when it started a website helping members buy drugs from Canadian pharmacies at prices often half of those in the United States. It also collected more than $100,000 in fees from those transactions. The program quickly was copied by other groups, including the state of Minnesota.

"The federation always did well when it acted on a critical need of older people -- especially health care issues," said Peter Wyckoff, who helped start the organization as a young Presbyterian minster and community organizer and who remained its executive director until he retired last year.

"Like most nonprofits, the federation always had a hand-to-mouth existence ... " he said Monday. "When Medicare added a drug benefit in 2006, that cut into the Canadian sales, and membership.

"The issues haven't changed all that much from the beginning -- property taxes, nursing homes and prescription drugs," he said. "I guess the federation wasn't able in the past couple of years to latch onto the issues in a way that galvanized members."

Warren Wolfe 612-673-7253 Federation to shut down