Al Gore Says Medicare is at "Crossroads"

Medicare has become a major issue in the presidential campaign as Al Gore accuses George W. Bush of trying to turn the 35-year-old health insurance program into a “welfare system.”

By Carter M. Yang ABCNEWS.com Sept. 25 — With George W. Bush regaining lost ground in the polls, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore said today

Medicare is at a “crossroads” and insisted his opponent would transform the government health insurance program into a welfare system for many of its 39 million beneficiaries.

The vice president hopes that argument will persuade Florida’s large population of elderly voters to help bring the Sunshine State’s 25 electoral votes into his in November.

Kicking off a three-day, three-state campaign swing, Gore told a group of seniors in St. Petersburg, Fla., today that electing his Republican rival would mean an end to Medicare as they know it.

“The other side has called Medicare a ‘government HMO,’” Gore said, referring to a GOP television ad criticizing the Democratic nominee’s plan to reform the program. “They really never have liked it … I’ll defend it. The other side won’t.”

‘At the Crossroads’

Gore began his campaign trail offensive on the Medicare issue today by releasing a 74-page book outlining his plan to “modernize” the 35-year-old program, while skewering Bush’s approach. The new document, entitled “Medicare at the Crossroads,” offers few new policy initiatives. Its purpose — like the vice president’s appearances in Florida, Michigan and Iowa this week — is to underscore the stark differences between the two candidates’ competing proposals.

Nowhere are those differences more striking than in their approaches to spiraling prescription drug costs.

Gore has called for $253 billion in new spending over the next decade to provide voluntary, subsidized drug coverage under the Medicare program. The government would pay for half of the first $5,000 in spending for Medicare beneficiaries and cap total, out-of-pocket drug spending at $4,000 per year.

Mend It, Don’t End It?

The Bush campaign lobs the same criticism at Gore’s Medicare plan as it does at his Social Security plan, arguing the vice president wants to simply throw money at a broken system instead of fixing it.

The Republican candidate — who also supports allowing younger workers to invest Social Security payments in the stock market — has proposed a similarly sweeping reform of Medicare. Calling for $158 billion in new Medicare spending over 10 years, Bush advocates setting up a system whereby private health-insurance providers compete with the federal government to provide prescription drug coverage.

Under the Texas governor’s plan, Medicare would cover drug costs on a sliding scale, with recipients at or below 135 percent of the poverty level receiving full coverage. Those earning over 135 percent of the poverty rate would be eligible for partial coverage based on their income level. Under the Bush proposal, the annual out-of-pocket spending cap would be set at $6,000.

Bush’s proposal also calls for a four-year transition period during which states would be given $48 billion in block grants to help their seniors purchase drugs. Gore has seized on that phase of his opponent’s plan, claiming it would force many seniors to go to welfare offices in order to obtain coverage.

“I believe seniors deserve better than a plan that … could run seniors through welfare offices,” he said in his remarks this afternoon. “If you paid into Medicare, you ought to be eligible for Medicare benefits, including the new prescription drug coverage that we’re going to add to Medicare.”

According to Gore’s new Medicare booklet, four states — Connecticut, Delaware, Maine and Minnesota — currently require seniors to apply for prescription drug assistance at welfare offices.

The Bush camp responded by pointing out that 10 of the 23 states that operate prescription drug programs have Democratic governors. The four states singled out by the Gore campaign are, however, governed by Republicans or independents.

Money Matters

Gore has argued that Bush’s proposal to reduce federal income taxes by $1.3 trillion over 10 years would require deep cuts for a number of key spending priorities. Today he argued Medicare is no different, claiming the tax cut plan would necessitate a $100 billion “raid” on the Medicare surplus. The vice president’s approach calls for a “lockbox” that would essentially wall off $360 billion for Medicare spending over the same 10-year period.

“Some see that surplus as a piggy bank they can use for tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy,” he said. “I will veto the use of any money from Medicare for anything other than Medicare.”

Bush’s aides flatly dispute the accusation and insist it is Gore who is guilty of financial irresponsibility, for failing to address the long-term solvency of Medicare—the same charge, the Bush camp made with regard to Gore’s plan to shore up the Social Security trust fund.

“Al Gore may think Medicare is at a ‘crossroads,’” said Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett, mocking the title of Gore’s Medicare booklet, “but his plan puts it on a highway to bankruptcy.”

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