Lobbying organization AARP’s support for changes to the nation’s health care system has cost the group thousands of members, and is now implementing a campaign to persuade seniors that it is an impartial advocate for the health care consumer.

“To be clear: AARP has not endorsed any comprehensive healthcare reform bill — but we are fighting for a solution that improves healthcare for our members,” said CEO Barry Rand and president Jennie Chin Hansen.

Many of the approximately 60,000 AARP members to resign their membership since July fear that changes to the health care system would result in cuts to Medicare. AARP has not endorsed any specific plan, but its support for improvements in health care gave many members the impression that it supports President Obama’s plan. The large number of protest resignations startled leaders of this powerful organization, which claims 40 million members. Although the group lost some members over the health care debate, it reports gaining 400,000 new members over the same period.

“The last thing I want is for members to feel we’re not representing them,” said Lori Parham, AARP’s Florida director.

The new publicity effort has included direct-mail communications, a September newsletter debunking health care myths, town-hall forums to discuss the changes being considered and national television and Web ads about the topic. Through this information-dissemination campaign, AARP hopes to hang on to members trying to decide whether to quit the group, such as Ted Campbell, who heads up a Republican group at a retirement community in Springfield, Va. Campbell, 80, complained that AARP did not appear to being staying politically neutral in the health care debate.

“I can see that they’re going Democratic, very much so. They talk about bipartisanship, but you don’t see it.” Campbell’s main concern is “rationing of treatments. It sounds to me like, based on age, they’re going to determine whether you get treatment or not. I don’t think that’s the way to control healthcare costs.”

In a letter to AARP leaders, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele urged the group to reject “the Democrats’ government-run healthcare experiment and the consequences it would have on seniors.” But Rand and Hansen are urging members to reject the “misinformation and fear-mongering in the debate.”

Alliance for Retired Americans’ Edward Coyle says seniors groups in general have “not done as good a job as we might have talking to seniors about the real issues. We were taken aback earlier in the summer” when town-hall meetings erupted into shouting matches between those for and against reform.

AARP’s legislative director, David Certner, notes that seniors’ current concerns regarding care rationing and benefit cuts differ sharply from the concerns they have voiced over the past several years. It was those earlier concerns, including the high cost of health care, the difficulty getting insurance for those between 50 and 64 years old who don’t yet qualify for Medicare, and the high cost of prescription drugs, which led the group to support reform of the system. In reference to Republican claims that an overhaul of the system would include “death panels,” Certner said, “There’s clearly been an effort to scare people. We’ve been spending a lot of time trying to dispel the myths. I think it has derailed the debate.”

Jim Kessler of Washington think tank Third Way, which supports the proposed “public option,” says AARP must position itself as “pro-reform without being partisan.” Confused seniors “need to see [AARP] as an honest broker in this debate” and a place “where they will get the most accurate information.”