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    Gore promises more to seniors

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    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 26, 2000

    ST. PETERSBURG -- Al Gore named every opponent Monday but George W. Bush.

    Private insurers. Health maintenance organizations. Pharmaceutical companies.

    Those interests, the vice president warned, cannot be trusted as much as Medicare to provide affordable medical treatment and prescription drugs.

    "The HMOs and insurance companies want to measure your health and well-being on a spreadsheet," Gore told more than 700 friendly listeners at the Coliseum ballroom. "And we're not going to let that happen."

    The vice president's pitch escalated the battle for Florida's seniors, who could represent up to one-third of the likely voters Election Day. The state's 25 electoral votes are up for grabs, and Bush has courted seniors at Sun City Center in Hillsborough County and at Top of the World in Clearwater in the past two weeks.

    In case there was any doubt, the vice president underscored Florida's importance at a fundraiser Monday night in Coral Gables that featured singer Jimmy Buffett.

    "Florida is the key to this race, and I think everybody here knows that!" Gore told the crowd. "You live in the state that could very well determine the outcome in the Electoral College."

    In St. Petersburg, Gore defended his proposal to improve Medicare and offer a prescription drug benefit. He attacked Bush by criticizing the private companies that would play an essential role in the Texas governor's Medicare plans.

    And he sweetened the pot a bit.

    Gore offered a series of enhancements to his Medicare package, including the elimination of deductibles and co-payments for preventive services. He also would allow people between ages 55 and 65 to buy coverage through Medicare, and he offered several changes that will resonate in an area where Medicare HMOs are leaving the market.

    To discourage Medicare HMOs from pulling out, Gore would not allow them to return to a community until four years have passed, instead of the current two-year requirement. He also would force HMOs to sign up Medicare patients for two years rather than one.

    Those details, and plenty more, are found in a new 76-page booklet in Gore released, "Medicare at a Crossroads." While few voters are expected to wade through the pamphlet, which is printed in very small type, it is another attempt to reinforce the vice president's image as a candidate who knows specifics and to imply that Bush has little grasp of such details.

    The invitation-only audience, which included many seniors who live in retirement complexes, frequently applauded the vice president.

    "He sounds like he will stand up for everybody, not only for the seniors but for the future generation so they will have Medicare, too," said Arlene Arthur, 72, who took a bus from her Pinellas Park apartment to see Gore.

    Several others said they favor the vice president's plan to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare instead of the proposal by Bush, which relies heavily on private insurers and HMOs to offer affordable plans that would include prescription drug coverage.

    Helen Hagstrand, 84, said she spends almost half of her monthly Social Security check on prescriptions. Sometimes, the St. Petersburg resident said, her medication runs out before the check arrives.

    "It's not good to miss my pills, but what can I do?" she said. "This is the real world."

    Joe Lecce, 74, is among nearly 10,000 Hernando County residents who recently learned their Medicare HMOs were pulling out. The Spring Hill resident was thrilled to hear Gore promise new penalties for HMOs pulling out of certain markets -- although the restrictions could make it tougher for some companies to return.

    "Gore, I think, can change things like that," Lecce said. "I'm in a position where I can't wait four years for (help). I need it to happen now."

    But some voters and politicians acknowledged that the electorate remains confused by the debate over Medicare and prescription drugs. Both Gore and Bush have been promoting their plans and attacking their opponent's with a flurry of statistics and counterclaims.

    Monday was no different.

    "Their plan would force seniors into HMOs," Gore said of Bush's proposal. "And their plan would make seniors go beg the HMOs and insurance companies for prescription drug coverage, even if the HMOs don't want to provide it."

    In fact, Bush says under his $198-billion Medicare proposal seniors could stay in their current Medicare plan and not change anything. Or, he says, they could choose from a variety of other plans that may or may not include prescription drug coverage.

    The Bush campaign contends Gore's proposal, which would cost $338-billion over 10 years, would force seniors into a "government-run HMO." Gore says that's not true.

    "They never really have liked it," Gore said, raising doubts about Republicans' devotion to the 35-year-old Medicare program. "They've suggested that you shouldn't trust Medicare to provide prescription drug coverage. Let me tell you: Medicare has been a lifeline of tens of millions of families. It's given millions the choice of doctors and health plans, so they don't have to choose between health care and food and rent. So I'll take Medicare over the real HMOs any day of the week."

    From St. Petersburg, Gore flew to Miami for two fundraisers Monday night. He expected to raise a total of $1.7-million for Democrats from the large reception featuring Buffett and a smaller party for contributors of at least $25,000.

    - Times staff writers Kris Hundley and Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.

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