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Gore Keeps Health Issues Afloat

Strategy: The vice president and running mate Lieberman push patients' bill of rights. Local concerns and an unhealthy breakfast are also on the menu.


SEATTLE — Vice President Al Gore jawed his way through his health care agenda this week with ferocious determination.

But Gore's concerns about health didn't seem to apply to himself Thursday when he asked the woman running the coffee shop on a ferry: "Is there any unhealthy breakfast food here?"

He was quickly gratified with a meal resembling an Egg McMuffin.

It was sunup in Seattle, and the Democratic presidential candidate and his running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, were making a round trip with morning commuters between the city and Bainbridge Island.

The message of the day--the Democratic ticket's support for legislation protecting the rights of patients in HMOs--would wait. Clearly, the vice president was feeling chipper, getting into the tenor of the Northwest as he rode the ferry and talked about salmon.

The mood had carried over from the night before, when he talked expansively about the time a year ago when he and his son, Albert III, now 17, made a three-day trek to the summit of Mt. Rainier and back to the base. The 14,000-foot mountain loomed beyond the windows of Air Force Two as he flew to Seattle.

It had been, he said, a head-clearing experience, much like a reverse trip down a snow-covered mountain on skis.

"I'm so bad at it that I can't think about anything except getting to the bottom of the mountain. And this was that, times 100," he said.

On the ferry Thursday morning, Gore was versed in local issues: He knew to assure would-be voters "I am campaigning for a third boat," a reference to commuters' desire for a third vessel on the run.

When Jeff Siddons, traveling to Bainbridge Island, asked what Gore would do to restore salmon to the region, the vice president said, "The salmon represent the linchpin of this whole region's balance between the economy and the environment."

Siddons confided later "his response was helpful to me. At least he knows what's going on here."

The day in Seattle completed a trip that took him from Florida to New Mexico and the Pacific Northwest over four days, his focus each day on health care and little else.

The vice president's campaign aides believe that, in their fight against Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee, they have a political winner in voters' concerns that Medicare will not be secure, that the elderly need help paying for prescriptions and that they have no protection against one of Gore's favorite targets: "bean counters sitting behind computer terminals" denying them needed care in health maintenance organizations.

"We need a meaningful, real, enforceable patients' bill of rights in this country," he said at a rally that attracted about 2,500 people, an overflow crowd, to Westlake Park, a plaza in downtown Seattle.

Gore favors legislation that would guarantee patients access to specialists and clinical trials, treatment in the nearest emergency rooms, "fair and timely" appeals of complaints with medical plans and recourse for those harmed by a medical plan.

Bush has supported a Republican proposal in Congress that would not provide the same guaranteed access to the most convenient emergency rooms, specialists and clinical trials or the same protections against harmful decisions.

During the rally, Gore received the endorsement of the American Nurses Assn.

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