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Gore, Lieberman Tackle Medicare

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PORTLAND, ORE. (AP) — Keeping focused on health care, Al Gore demanded Wednesday that rival George W. Bush say what he is willing to do to save Medicare and he promoted his own $400 billion boost for the program.

Bush, who plans to issue details of his Medicare plan next week, responded by contending that the Clinton-Gore administration squandered opportunities during the past seven years to shore up Medicare.

``This administration has had seven years to get something done,'' the Republican presidential candidate said on a live on-air and online CNN interview, adding that he may consider airing an ad that makes that point.

Democrat Gore, at a town hall meeting at Portland State University with his running mate Joseph Lieberman, touted his plan to preserve Medicare and offer a new prescription drug benefit for senior citizens.

``Medicare is a lifeline for millions of seniors and their families,'' Gore said. ``You ought to know what both sides are proposing to do to preserve it and make it strong.''

``We're prepared to talk about the details,'' said Lieberman, who argued that Bush would spend the surplus on tax cuts leaving nothing for health care. Lieberman and Gore spoke at a forum at Portland State University.

Aides noted that Bush has spoken approvingly of a Medicare commission that has recommended changes, some controversial, to shore up the health care program for the nation's elderly.

The Texas governor said he wants seniors on Medicare to have more health care options, including a prescription drug benefit, which both Republicans and Democrats have been promoting this election year.

Asked about the prescription drug issue, Bush alluded to efforts by congressional Republicans to restructure the entire Medicare program. Without giving details, Bush suggested he would pattern his proposal after a federal employee plan that offers workers various health care options.

``We are going to open up the market to competition,'' Bush said. ``And all of the plans offered will have a prescription drug benefit. ... Seniors will be able to pick and choose.''

Bush said that his basic Medicare plan would provide coverage for poor seniors, while those with higher incomes and those who want more elaborate health care coverage would pay more out of pocket.

The governor didn't address Medicare commission proposals.

Gore said he will not support many of the panel's recommendations, which include a working proposal to raise the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67 and increasing premiums and copayments.

``I am not going to support the commission's recommendations to raise the eligibility,'' Gore said. ``I am not going to support the commission's proposal to raise premiums and raise copayments.''

Likewise, Bush communications director Karen Hughes said, ``The governor would not increase the age to qualify for Medicare and he has made that abundantly clear on a number of occasions.''

Gore aides noted that Bush has put no money in his budget for Medicare, and said Bush should be asked to explain how he would keep the system from running out of money.

Under Gore's proposed $400 billion bailout, Medicare would be taken off-budget or put into a ``lock box,'' where its surpluses could not be spent for other purposes.

Bush has spoken approvingly of the commission's report, but has not specifically endorsed it.

He also has praised as ``a blueprint for success'' a proposal by Sens. John Breaux, D-La., and Bill Frist, R-Tenn., which does not seek to raise the eligibility age.

He is expected next Tuesday to lay out details of his plan to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

Meanwhile, the debate over adding prescription drugs to Medicare continues to be fought via TV commercials. The Republican Leadership Coalition, an independent group, plans an ad that accuses Gore of raiding senior citizens' Social Security checks.

Under Gore's plan, seniors who sign up for the drug plan who are not poor enough to get the benefits for free will have the premiums taken out of their Social Security checks -- the same way other Medicare premiums are deducted. In the ad, an elderly woman says: ``I've got a message for Al Gore: Get your hands off my Social Security check.''

The spot, which will air only in Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh, does not mention that the program is voluntary.

Gore and Lieberman will have to be careful on the issue. Lieberman, a senator from Connecticut, voted in 1997 to raise the eligibility age to 67. But on issues where the two differ, Lieberman has said he will defer to Gore.

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