On to the next challenge

As chair of AARP’s national board, Joanne Disch wields wide influence on healthcare, aging policy

Several years ago, a friend of Joanne Disch’s suggested that she run for AARP’s national board of directors. The only problem? "I hadn’t really been active in AARP," says Disch. As a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing, director of the school’s Katharine J. Densford International Center for Nursing Leadership, and the Katherine R. and C. Walton Lillehei Chair in Nursing Leadership, it isn’t surprising that Disch hadn’t found the time to get actively involved in the nonprofit organization for people age 50 and over.

Which is exactly what Disch felt made her perfect for the job.

"Two things made me think that maybe I should run for the AARP board," explains Disch, who lives in the ECCO neighborhood. "One was that I really believed in AARP’s mission, that they are going to be a major shaper of public policy as it relates to people my age, and I want a say in that. And the second thing was the fact that I wasn’t experienced in the organization. What I wrote was that every organization is founded on people who have spent years supporting it, but every once in awhile you need a fresh perspective from someone who isn’t colored by all the traditions and can bring in new ideas."

Out of the roughly 800 candidates vying for seven open seats on the board in 2002 Disch’s refreshing spin landed her one of the open spots — and she didn’t stop there. In 2006, Disch was elected chair of the board at the organization’s biennial National Leadership Conference in Baltimore. As she heads into the homestretch of her tenure, which ends in May 2008, Disch looks back and easily laughs at the trajectory that took her from anonymous AARP-er to head of the pack. "I went from zero to the chair, that’s a good way of describing it!" she says.


The nurse is in

Disch credits her nursing background with making her so well-suited for chairing a board that helps set the agenda for more than 38 million members, many of whom have concerns surrounding health care. When she arrived, two issues were at the forefront of her mind: aging and health care reform. "As a nurse, I think there are a lot better ways to do health care," says Disch. "A lot of people are talking about how do we better finance our current system, and I just roll my eyes because that is not what we need to be doing — I don’t want better financing for our current system, I want to blow up our current system."

Fighting words like that are the norm for Disch, whose board tackled several prominent issues during her tenure — including the Medicare Modernization Act (the board supported it) and the privatization of Social Security (the board was against it). "With the Medicare Modernization Act, the board decided to support a very flawed bill, believing it will get a foot in the door," explains Disch. "Normally, I would have advocated that we wait until a better plan came along, but if we’d done that, the money would have been in Iraq to shore up the war effort." In the end, Disch’s instincts proved to be right: despite issues like the "donut hole" (the gap in coverage before catastrophic coverage kicks in), 80 percent of AARP members think they are better off because of the changes.

While the Medicare Modernization Act was a compromise for the board, Disch is proud of the stand they took against privatizing Social Security, which involved "relentlessly getting everyone educated," as well as ensuring members were active in making their feelings known to the government. Outside of tackling specific issues, Disch has also made strides in expanding AARP’s reach outside of the U.S. "We’ve really been able to become more international and global in our thinking," says Disch, whose board took a study tour in Europe last year to learn about different health care systems. "We learned a ton of things about how to do health care better that we want to bring here. We can learn from other cultures."

The only area Disch feels some regret is on the lack of legislation allowing the reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada, to which the Bush administration has been opposed. Disch went so far as to testify before Congress on the benefits of such reimportation, but no changes to the law have been made. "This would fit under the big umbrella of health care reform, but pharmaceutical companies are saying people are going to die. Might they have an agenda? There’s a resistance to change out of self-interest. People are not lying dead along the highway due to drugs from Canada. Those scare tactics are used to get people to refuse something that would be helpful."


After AARP

Just as Disch is wrapping up her tenure with AARP, the organization has fired up a new campaign, Divided We Fail, to highlight the need for affordable health care, a strong Social Security system, and better choices when it comes to long-term care for the elderly. The campaign is getting members and nonmembers from around the country to sign a pledge supporting candidates who will make these issues a priority (singer Tony Bennett recently signed the pledge sheet before a performance at Mystic Lake in Shakopee).

It will be hard for Disch to leave as this new campaign kicks into gear, but it also allows her the chance to delve into different organizations that will benefit from what she’s learned at AARP. That means continuing her work with the Allina Health Systems board and becoming more active with the National Center for Health Care Leadership. "My friends and I have an expression, ‘life is rich and full,’" says Disch. "It means ‘I am one step out of disaster.’ I like to juggle several balls." That said, Disch is trying to incorporate more downtime into her schedule. "A colleague once said to me that at the end of the day you work hard and you play hard, but you have to rest hard, too. And that’s been one of the most powerful pieces of advice I’ve ever received because I did confuse playing hard with resting," says Disch. "There’s a third dimension: you have to spend time just chilling. I have some balance tucked into my schedule, though you can’t always see it."

As a Minnesotan leaving one of the top posts at AARP Disch refuses to take any credit for inspiring others to become more active in the organization throughout the state — she says AARP itself and the work it does encourages a high level of involvement. "It’s so personally rewarding to work with people on an important cause and it’s intellectually stimulating because you’re involved in issues that really matter. At the end of the day, you’ll know you’ve made a difference in something very important to our country and gotten something back yourself."

And just as you’re about to believe Disch’s deflection, an AARP employee who overheard her explanation quietly says, "We don’t want you to go, Joanne!" To which Disch says, "I’m still going to be here."

Monica Wright is Minnesota Good Age’s assistant editor.