Bonnie Cramer was on the hot seat again this month, testifying before a congressional subcommittee about the rising cost of prescription drugs.
At a time when other consumer prices were dropping, she asked, why had brand-name drug prices jumped by 9.3 percent since the fall of 2008?
Her remarks did not endear her to some members of the panel, who pummeled her with pointed questions.
Cramer took it in stride. As chairwoman of the national board of AARP, the petite woman speaks with a big voice. AARP is one of the most influential lobbies in the United States, representing nearly 40 million Americans over the age of 50. The organization has been a key voice in the debate about the health care overhaul, holding more than a dozen town hall meetings and producing TV commercials about the issue. Though AARP did not stake itself out on the so-called public option, it endorsed the House bill, which contained one.
Cramer, back home in Raleigh, monitors the situation, her cell phone trilling every few minutes.
The unpaid position on the 23-member board has taken Cramer, a retired state employee, around the world. It might as well be a job, with 40-plus hours of work some weeks. She describes it as a joy, not a grind.
"It is a powerful organization. It works for the right things and has the resources to do it," she says. "I think sometimes, how lucky can a person be?"
Her former boss, state Controller David McCoy, described Cramer as one of his go-to people when he was state budget director. Cramer has the "absolute correct disposition" to deal with complex, high profile issues, he says.
"You recognized her expertise and experience, but yet she didn't have an ego," McCoy says.
Born to help
Bonnie Messer was born and raised in Raleigh, the older daughter of a father who was a salesman and a mother who was a state employee. The family was not prosperous, but her parents always taught her about helping people in need.
She became a leader at Broughton High School, where she was a cheerleader and always ran for class officer.
"I love to organize, mobilize people," she says.
To her parents' chagrin, she dropped out of Meredith College during her sophomore year to marry Clark Cramer, her high school sweetheart. He got a job at IBM in New York, and she eventually finished college at a state university there amid the social turmoil following the late 1960s.
The couple returned to North Carolina and Cramer enrolled in a graduate program for social work at UNC-Chapel Hill. She began her career as a caseworker in child protective services in Durham.
It was heartbreaking duty.
"It's one of the most difficult, emotionally draining things I've ever done," she recalls. "In a way, it kind of made me who I am."
Cramer remembers vividly one night when her pager went off in the wee hours, and she drove to the magistrate's office in Durham to take custody of an abused child.
The next day, Cramer happened to be speaking at a public school when someone stopped her in the hallway and said in a cheerful voice, "Hi, Mrs. Cramer." It was the child she had placed in foster care just a few hours earlier.
"All I could think of was what that child had been through all night and now was trying to make her way in a classroom ... I saw how a little bit of help and a little bit of hope can have such an impact and can be life-changing."
While Cramer worked with children for years, she gravitated to issues around aging and long-term care for the elderly. It's her passion, she says.
In 1988, when she first went to work as a deputy director in the state's Division of Aging, Medicare laws had undergone changes that created uproar.
"If I ever had an indoctrination of the power of the older voter, that was it," she says. "They were mad and they were at the front door."
During a 29-year career in the state's Health and Human Services Department and the state budget office, Cramer became a policy wonk focused on health and aging issues. But she never lost sight of the human consequences of her decisions, says Mary Bethel, advocacy director for the state AARP and a former colleague of Cramer.
"She pretty much eats, sleeps and breathes these things," Bethel says.
Cramer rose through the state ranks while dealing with a debilitating disease. She was diagnosed at 21 with severe rheumatoid arthritis.
"I saw her days she could barely get out of the car," Bethel recalls. "Once she got in that office you never knew anything was hindering her."
Cramer now takes chemotherapy drugs, painkillers and steroids to make the arthritis bearable. Without them, she would be bedridden. The drugs cause her hair to fall out, she says, but they help her stay on her feet.
The disease has been a curse and a blessing, leaving Cramer with a keen understanding of the obstacles faced by older Americans who suffer with daily pain.
Her term with AARP ends in June. She doesn't know yet what she'll do afterward, but she has an idea of forming a nonprofit organization that would help patients navigate the health care system.
Whatever is next for Cramer, says lifelong friend Dr. Charlotte Sweeney, it will be ambitious and will benefit people in North Carolina.
"She just won't take no for an answer," Sweeney says.
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