Gore touts plans to cut drug costs for seniors

Tuesday, August 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Myrtle Jennings needs to take medicine for heart problems, high blood pressure and arthritic pain in her spine – but can't afford it all at the same time.

With prescription drug bills of $207 a month, the 82-year-old widow has to make the kind of painful decision that Al Gore says justifies his latest issue in the presidential campaign, a new Medicare benefit.

"So what does she do? She cuts out the pain medication," Mr. Gore said Monday during a town hall meeting with Mrs. Jennings and about 150 other senior citizens. "That's just wrong; that's just wrong. And how many millions of seniors are there now who are making choices like that?"

The Florida visit, the second in a week for the vice president, began a week of stumping on health care, during which Gore aides said he would further highlight what they called the lack of specifics from Republican opponent George W. Bush.

Bush aides disagreed, saying the Texas governor supports new tax credits that will make it easier for people to buy health insurance, including prescription drug coverage. Mr. Bush said Monday that he would unveil a prescription drug plan next week.

The governor's aides also said that the Gore plan doesn't add up to much and gives authority to bureaucrats over individuals, reviving memories of the Clinton administration's failed national health care plan.

"By proposing a one-size-fits-all, government-run drug plan, Al Gore today fully embraced the old-style, government-knows-best approach the American people soundly rejected when Hillary Clinton tried it in 1993," Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett said.

Mr. Gore, maintaining his recent practice, did not cite his opponent by name, though he did say the Republicans in general lacked a plan.

"When the other side gets around to proposing a specific plan, then we can compare it and contrast it," Mr. Gore said.

But later, on a flight from Tallahassee to Albuquerque, N.M., Mr. Gore called on "the other side" to spell out its plans for Medicare, prescription drugs and a host of other issues.

"The time for generalities without specifics, I think, is just about over," he said. "As far as specifics are concerned it's kind of 'put up or shut up' time."

Under the vice president's 10-year, $250 billion plan, Medicare would cover prescription drugs for senior citizens at or near the poverty line. For those with slightly higher incomes, it would contribute half the cost of drugs, up to $5,000 per year. It would also provide "catastrophic" coverage for any out-of-pocket prescription drug costs above $4,000 per year. Medicare does not currently cover prescription drugs.

Blaming drug companies

During the town hall meeting and an earlier visit to a local pharmacy, Mr. Gore again attacked large drug companies. He said they are able to dictate high prices by getting Congress to extend the patents on certain drugs, maintaining their monopoly.

As a result, the vice president said, prices for the same drugs are often cheaper for pets.

"That's pretty bad, when you've got to pretend to be a dog or cat to get a price break," Mr. Gore told the proprietor of Baker's Pharmacy.

Mr. Gore later took off for New Mexico on a trip that will include Oregon and Washington state. Scheduled topics include expanding the Child Health Insurance Program to cover every child within five years and a patients "bill of rights" including the right to sue health maintenance organizations.

Why Florida?

It is no accident that Mr. Gore began his health care tour in the state of Florida, with its large elderly population. Aides said the issue can help them defy conventional wisdom that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush should easily deliver the state to his brother George W. in the fall election.

"We believe there's a sunny outlook for the Gore campaign in the Sunshine State," Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said.

Bush aides said the vice president's visits to Florida, both Friday and Monday, were little more than empty gestures.

"We're confident George Bush's message is being well received there," spokesman Dan Bartlett said. "We're going to carry Florida."

Mr. Gore, speaking to reporters aboard Air Force Two, rejected suggestions that his visits to Florida were an effort to rattle Mr. Bush, arguing that he has a good chance to take the state.

"It is not a head fake," he said.

Mr. Gore discussed prescription drugs the same day the Republican National Committee began airing television ads blasting him on the subject. The ads, expected to cost about $7 million, say Mr. Gore is "pushing a big government plan that lets Washington bureaucrats interfere with what your doctors prescribe," while under the Bush approach, "seniors choose."

The Democratic National Committee has its own ads – expected to cost as much as $5 million total – that question Mr. Bush's promise to help senior citizens with their drug bills.

GOP points to Lieberman

As for the vice president's attacks on drug companies, Republicans said that Gore running mate Joe Lieberman is a major recipient of the industry's campaign contributions.

In addition to promoting health care tax credits, Bush aides said they want to help small businesses finance less expensive health care plans through multistate associations.

Bush supporters said they favor the approach of a Medicare plan developed by Sens. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and John Breaux, D-La., though the governor has declined to specifically endorse that plan. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said Mr. Bush will base his plan on the Frist-Breaux approach, which he admired primarily for its bipartisan approach.

Gore aides said bipartisan health care plans have not gone far enough, and they chided the Republicans for failing to produce a specific prescription drug plan of their own. They said Mr. Bush and his allies are trying to protect their large contributors in the insurance industry.

In recent polls, Americans have identified health care as their most important issue, although they have not agreed on what the problem is. Some cited the need for a patients bill of rights, others the lack of insurance for too many Americans and still others the price of prescription drugs.

Political analysts said relatively few voters will study the details of any health care plan. In a prosperous era lacking one overriding issue, voters may instead judge candidates on their general approach to health care and a host of other questions.

"I don't think the election's going to turn on any one issue," political analyst Charles Cook said. "I think it's going to turn on whether Bush is big enough for the job or whether there is any voter connection with Gore."