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Medicare’s Well-Being Suddenly a Key Issue

Times Staff Writers

Medicare emerged as a key point of contention Saturday in the race for the White House, as President Bush defended his efforts to improve it while Sen. John F. Kerry blasted the administration for promising fixes, only to approve the largest premium hike in the program’s 40-year history.

With new polls showing Bush opening up a double-digit lead over his Democratic opponent, Kerry has come under pressure from allies to conduct a more aggressive campaign. Kerry aides said they thought the race would again tighten, and that they were confident Bush is especially vulnerable on the domestic front.

Bush told voters jammed into a gym in the Cleveland suburb of Broadview Heights that reforms his administration pushed through last year would provide seniors with healthcare screenings and a prescription drug benefit in the next two years. But he did not mention the 17% Medicare premium increase for millions of elderly and disabled patients that his administration imposed a day earlier. It takes effect next year.

“We went to Washington, D.C., with the idea of solving problems,” Bush said, adding later: “We have done the job when it comes to improving healthcare for our seniors.”

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Kerry, also campaigning in the battleground state of Ohio, accused Bush of reneging on a pledge he made Thursday in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

“On the day after saying, ‘We’re going to strengthen Medicare, ' Medicare premiums go up for senior citizens 17% -- the largest increase in Medicare premiums in 40 years,” Kerry said at a rally in Akron. His remark provoked a round of boos from his crowd, and Kerry then invoked two of the corporations that for Democrats are shorthand for the claim that the president’s policies unduly favor big business. .

“Let me ask you something: Who are they going to send the bill to? Are they going to send the bill to Halliburton? Are they going to send the bill to Ken Lay at Enron? You bet they’re not. They’re going to send the bill to our senior citizens.”

Kerry planned to reinforce his message with a 30-second television ad that showed Bush making his convention pledge to help seniors, and says, “The very next day, George Bush imposes the biggest Medicare premium increase in history while prescription drug costs still skyrocket.”

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The back-and-forth on Medicare came as Republicans were buoyed by the second poll in as many days showing Bush holding an 11% lead nationally, coming off the party’s four-day convention in New York.

As he took turns shooting clay pigeons with former Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) in Edinburgh, Ohio, Kerry said he was unconcerned about the polls. “We’re doing good,” he said. “They’re going to get a bounce out of the convention, but we’ll be coming back.”

Even before the GOP convention, Kerry was on the defensive because of ads that challenged his service record in Vietnam and criticized his subsequent protests against the war. The ads were sponsored by a group of Vietnam veterans opposing Kerry.

As part of the Kerry campaign’s new aggressive response to the ads, several Democrats campaigning with him Saturday sharply derided Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney’s Vietnam-era choices.

The hardest hit came from Rep. Ted Strickland of Ohio, who contrasted Kerry’s tour of duty with the Navy “in the jungles of Vietnam” with Bush’s days “as a cheerleader at Yale University.”

After graduating from Yale, Bush served with the Air National Guard in two states. Critics have charged he joined the Guard to avoid being sent to Vietnam and noted that the nature of his service in Alabama has never been fully accounted.

As recently as Thursday night in Ohio, Kerry had launched some of the attacks on his opponent’s military records himself. In reference to Cheney, who received multiple deferments that kept him out of military service, Kerry said the voters could decide “whether five deferments makes someone more qualified than two tours of duty.”

The comments by Strickland and others seemed intended to tarnish the administration’s credentials on defense and national security issues -- which polls have shown is its strong suit among voters -- while Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, hit Bush on healthcare and the economy.

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The Democrats received a small assist in these efforts Saturday from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who opened the Republican convention Monday night with glowing praise of Bush’s national security record. McCain said Medicare premiums are “just too high for low-income families to deal with.”

“The Medicare increases are going to have to be discussed,” McCain said to reporters as he appeared with Cheney at a campaign event in Roswell, N.M. “We can’t have continued increases along that level.”

The issue is politically potent in several battleground states, such as Ohio and Florida, where seniors make up large segments of the electorate.

The White House had hoped to seize the high ground on the issue, traditionally friendlier to Democrats, when Congress passed legislation that would provide prescription drug coverage under Medicare. But polls show many seniors agree with Democratic criticism that the law did not go far enough and was designed to benefit the drug companies.

Democrats think the new premium increases could further hurt Bush’s credibility on the issue. Citing increased doctor costs and the need for modernization, the administration announced premiums would rise next year for nearly all of the 41.8 million Medicare recipients.

The boost from $66.60 to $78.20 a month is the largest increase in the program’s 40-year history and comes after an earlier hike of 10% in deductibles.

Kerry said the Medicare increases fit into a Bush pattern of approving policies that hurt the poor and middle class.

“Whenever this president is given an opportunity to make a choice

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Dr. Mark McClellan, administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said Friday that seniors would receive better service for the higher premiums and that, in the long run, the better care would help them save money.

Kerry, in his Akron appearance, linked his long-standing attack on Bush-backed tax cuts with predicted financial problems looming for the Social Security program.

Characterizing the tax cuts as skewed to the affluent, Kerry said, “This president is taking money from Social Security in order to reward the already most-rewarded in America, and I think that’s a misguided policy.”

Bush promoted his plan to improve Medicare during a daylong bus tour through towns in Ohio and Pennsylvania. It was the president’s second day of campaigning since he left the New York convention, which a poll for Newsweek magazine released Saturday indicated had given Bush a pronounced surge in the presidential contest.

Like a Time magazine poll released a day earlier, the Newsweek showed an 11-percentage point lead among registered voters. Surveys before the GOP convention had shown a statistical tie between the candidates, though Bush already was easing ahead in many.

Speaking to reporters Saturday, Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman assessed the polls cautiously, saying the race likely would be “topsy-turvy” in its final two months. Still, Bush’s senior strategists clearly were pleased with the new poll results.

Besides discussing Medicare on Saturday, Bush said a government report released Friday showing 144,000 new jobs created nationally in August were a sign that his domestic polices have improved the nation’s economy. But he also acknowledged that more must be done -- particularly in industrial states such as Ohio, where many high-paying jobs have been lost overseas.

“I understand ... there’s places in America ... that lag behind the national growth rate,” Bush said. “Ohio has got pockets of unemployment that are unacceptable. But the unemployment rate nationally is 5.4%. That’s lower than the average of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.”

But Kerry said the August jobs gains were paltry, at best, and he noted that the Bush administration likely would be the first since Herbert Hoover’s in the Great Depression to suffer a net loss of jobs.

At an “Ask President Bush” session during his stop in Broadview Heights, the president said that if he won a second term, he would be open to discussions of a national sales tax or a flat income tax.

The latter proposal has for years been a favorite of conservatives, who view it as a way to simplify the federal tax code; critics say it would ease the tax burden on the rich while making lower-income people pay more.

“We’re going to bring Republicans and Democrats together,” the president said, when asked about the flat tax. “I’m not going to prejudge the outcome. It’s certainly one option.”

But Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, campaigning in Wisconsin, said Bush had already told a “lie” when he suggested the Democrats opposed tax cuts.

“Our difference is we are not for tax cuts for multimillionaires. They are. We are for tax cuts for working people.”

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Times staff writers James Rainey, Nick Anderson and Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.


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