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A Voters' Guide a Click Away

March 06, 2000|MARLA BOLOTSKY

Too often Election Day finds us all wishing we knew more about our ballot choices. And more than one in four of us say health care will be the top factor in deciding which presidential candidate gets our vote, according to public opinion polls. Fortunately, http://www.vote-smart.org can help us check out our favorite candidates' health-care positions in time for Tuesday's primary.

The nonpartisan Project Vote Smart, which operates the site, gets its funding from well-known foundations, libraries, news organizations and individuals, and refuses money from political entities, corporations and unions. The group calls itself a "national library of factual information" on more than 10,000 candidates for national and state office.

The site provides public statements, candidate backgrounds, issue positions, voting records, campaign finances, performance evaluations by interest groups and much more.

But for those of us interested in health care, here are the major highlights: presidential public statements (search by keyword and candidate name), voting records (by issue) and issue positions. The best part is, you're not on your own. If you need help understanding or finding something (the site is sometimes difficult to navigate), just call (888) VOTE SMART, staffed 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. Even if the answer is not on the site, a researcher will help you find what you need.

How can you track a candidate's health-care views? Let's take one of the hottest issues being debated today: a prescription drug benefit for seniors. As you may know, Medicare doesn't cover prescriptions, so most seniors have to pay out-of-pocket for their medications.

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What They've Said: Go to the fourth star on vote-smart.org's home page for my favorite feature: "Search the Presidential Candidates' Public Statements," an archive dating back to the early '90s. Then enter the keywords "prescription drug benefit." (You can also review the full range of statements by each candidate.)

For Bill Bradley, we find that his health-care plan does include a prescription drug benefit. George W. Bush says, "What our elderly need is a modern Medicare plan that will provide prescription drug benefits just like our federal employees get." Vice President Al Gore says it's part of his plan for Medicare. And Sen. John McCain says it's a big problem and if it requires a federal program, he'll support it. For Sen. McCain, I had to adjust my search to find "Medicare" and "prescription drugs," because he never referred to it as a "benefit." But aside from that, with a few clicks of my mouse, I found out that all those candidates support the issue in some way. (The search turned up no related statements by radio commentator Alan Keyes.)

I think it's terrific (and fun) to be able to search presidential candidates' statements. You get to go beyond the sound bites from the news, advertisements and political pundits' opinions. You get to know them. You get the facts plus the nuances. If you're concerned about how committed candidates might be to cancer research, for example, you can look up their positions or voting records. And when you search their statements for "cancer," you get even more food for thought. As is the case with Al Gore and Bill Bradley, you learn that cancer has touched their families.

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How They've Voted: Voting Records, the section on the left, is handy when researching candidates who have already spent time in office. Select your state and candidate first, then look under "Health" to see how he or she voted on different health-care legislation in the last eight to nine years. This section is much better at tracking members of the U.S. Congress than state lawmakers. But the site is adding data all the time, so call the hotline if you can't find something.

For U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, for example, you'll find biographical data and other background information. Her voting record is organized by issues and dates, so you can search dozens of general health votes, back to 1991. You can also separately search AIDS, abortion and family planning, senior issues, family issues, Social Security and more. In fact, you'll see that she recently voted yes on a motion, which failed, to waive the Budget Act and allocate funds to create a Medicare prescription drug benefit program.

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More on Issues: If your candidate doesn't have a voting record, check out Issue Positions, left bar, which is just what it says. There you'll find the National Political Awareness Test, which is researched, created, designed and distributed by Project Vote Smart, with input from political scientists and the media.

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