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Gore Ticket Vows Affordable Drugs for Seniors

Politics: The vice president pushes his plan in Iowa, and says the GOP health care plan would leave millions of elderly without any coverage.


DES MOINES — Winifred Skinner, 79, walks the streets of Iowa's capital picking up discarded cans to pay for her groceries and medicine. Milwaukee resident George McKinney, 70, and his wife once rode the bus 400 miles to Canada to find cheaper prescription drugs.

In separate Midwestern appearances Wednesday, Al Gore and his running mate, Joseph I. Lieberman, promised the two senior citizens that the Democratic ticket would make prescription drugs more affordable for those on Medicare, accusing their Republican rivals of a plan that would leave millions of elderly people without coverage.

In Des Moines, the vice president said that Texas Gov. George W. Bush's proposal would give the elderly "a little something" to seek private insurance, leaving them "at the mercy of the HMOs and insurance companies."

Gore has proposed a prescription drug benefit for Medicare that would cover half the cost of medications up to $5,000 and put a cap on prescription costs for those in catastrophic situations.

Under his plan, the vice president said, "you get to see your doctor and your doctor is the one that decides the medicine that is right for you, and no HMO or insurance company can overrule your doctor and nobody has to go to an HMO."

Also on Wednesday, Gore spoke by telephone with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) one day after they challenged Gore and Bush to ban the use of soft money in their campaign finances. Gore reiterated to the two senators his pledge to ask the Democratic National Committee and independent organizations that support him to stop using soft money, as long as Bush does the same. Gore made a similar offer in March.

But the Bush campaign dismissed Gore's promise, accusing the vice president of raising millions of dollars in soft money even as he asked for a ban.

"Unfortunately, Al Gore has a history of disregard for campaign finance laws," said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer. "I just doubt that somebody who has recognized no controlling legal authority over his campaign fund-raising is going to abide by a handshake now."

Gore spent most of the day pushing his prescription drug plan. At a community center in Altoona, Iowa, Skinner, a retired quality control inspector at an AAMCO auto parts factory and president of her United Auto Workers local, gave Gore an accounting of her finances: $782 a month in Social Security benefits and a $129.59 monthly pension benefit.

Her Blue Cross-Blue Shield health insurance premium, which provides coverage on top of Medicare, costs $111.30 each month, she said, and "that leaves $18 out of my pension."

Gore did the math in his head, and said she had $800 left to meet all her other expenses each month, which she said included prescription costs of up to $250.

So, she said, she picks up cans on Des Moines' streets, walking up to three hours a day, seven days a week, "and this is what puts food on my table."

Gore said that Bush's prescription assistance would be directed at the poorest in the nation and would largely leave out needed help for the middle-class elderly.

"My plan is not just for the hardest-pressed seniors," he said. "It is for all seniors."

Bush's plan would pay the Medicare premiums and all other health-care related costs for individuals with incomes of less than 135% of the poverty line, or about $11,300 for an individual.

The Gore campaign argues that this would lead many senior citizens into health maintenance organizations, restricting the choices they would have if they relied instead on traditional fee-for-service health care.

With her fixed income and the proceeds from her scavenging, perhaps $500 a year, she estimates, Skinner's income would appear to put her right around the line set by the Bush plan. To obtain health insurance under the Bush program, she would have to find private coverage, to which the government would contribute 25% of the monthly premium.

Dan Bartlett, a spokesman for Bush, said that under a sliding scale, Skinner would appear to be eligible for additional assistance and that Bush would implement his plan within a year of taking office, while Gore's assistance would be phased in over eight years.

Meanwhile, Lieberman met with voters at Milwaukee's Wilson Park Senior Center on Wednesday morning, where he called the lack of prescription drug coverage in Medicare "one of the great areas of unmet humane needs in our country."

In a room decorated with a wood carving and a homemade quilt tossed over a cabinet, Lieberman listened to six seniors' frustration of having to turn to Canadian doctors and pharmacies for relief.

"In March I went on a bus trip [to Canada], and they were 63% cheaper," McKinney told Lieberman. McKinney said he and his wife face monthly prescription drug costs of $500, with only their Social Security and a small pension to rely on.

"It doesn't make a lot of sense to me," he added. "I feel a little ashamed sometimes when the Canadians talk about how rich this country is."

Stephanie Sue Stein, who heads Milwaukee County's Department of Aging, told Lieberman that Canadian pharmacies are a lifeline to many elderly.

"You've got a big business here, senator," she said.


Times staff writer Matea Gold contributed to this report.

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