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THE NATION

In Iowa, Presidential Rivals Debate Health Care

Six of the nine Democrats participate in a forum, criticizing Bush and one another.

October 16, 2003|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

DES MOINES — Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean came under fire Wednesday from five Democratic presidential rivals for advocating Medicare cuts in the 1990s as a means of balancing his state's budget.

But, at a forum sponsored by the Iowa chapter of the AARP, formerly the American Assn. of Retired Persons, Dean responded by describing himself as "the only person here who actually has delivered health care" -- and by outlining a health insurance program he enacted in Vermont that covers 99% of that state's children.

The occasionally pointed exchanges took place as Dean shared the stage with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois.

The three other Democratic presidential candidates -- retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut -- skipped the forum, which drew an audience of more than 1,000.

The two-hour session focused on health care access, the cost of prescription drugs and the future of Social Security -- key issues in a state with one of the country's highest elderly populations. According to the 2000 census, about 15% of Iowans are 65 and older.

In addition, Iowa is the site of the first crucial contest in the Democratic presidential race -- caucuses that will take place Jan. 19. And more than one-third of those attending past Democratic caucuses have been at least 65, according to the state AARP.

In one-minute responses to audience questions, Wednesday's participants condemned President Bush on health issues, saying he has failed to push hard enough to expand insurance coverage or lower the cost of prescription drugs.

Edwards also chastised the president because many older Americans have lost pensions after corporate takeovers or when businesses have failed entirely.

"In George Bush's America, we have seniors bagging groceries because they have lost pensions," Edwards charged.

Kucinich and Moseley Braun stood alone in advocating single-payer health insurance for all Americans. "There is no reforming this dysfunctional system," Moseley Braun said. "You're just going to have to stop tinkering with something so broken, and move on to a single-payer system."

Gephardt vowed to change medical insurance reimbursement policies, "so that states like Iowa and Missouri get their fare share."

While Dean and Gephardt voiced accord as they supported importation of prescription drugs from Canada, the Missouri lawmaker took a shot at Dean by saying he would not cut Social Security and Medicare "to get the budget straightened out."

Edwards chided Dean -- as well as Gephardt -- for endorsing a reversal of Bush tax cuts that they said had benefited the middle class. Kucinich, for his part, took issue with Dean for not agreeing with his plan to lower the age for retirement with full benefits from 67 to 65.

But when Kerry compared Dean to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- charging that, like the Georgia Republican, Dean had advocated cutting Medicare benefits -- the AARP audience booed the senator.

Dean responded by smiling and trotting out what has become a stock line of his campaign: "They used to compare me to George McGovern. Now they compare me to Newt Gingrich."

Dean, completing a three-day tour of Iowa, used the forum as an opportunity to claim credit as "the only one here who has balanced a budget." He noted that one-third of Vermont's senior citizens receive "some kind of help" with prescription drug purchases.

"That is why I am running for president," he said. "Because I got tired of waiting for Congress. We are going to do for the country what we did for Vermont."

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