- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2000

Vice President Al Gore, fresh from an attack on "big oil," yesterday blamed "price gouging" by drug manufacturers for the soaring cost of prescriptions.

At a high school in suburban St. Louis, Mr. Gore touted his plans for a "real, comprehensive prescription-drug benefit" under Medicare, a proposal that he said offered a sharp contrast with the Republicans.

"We'll put the power of medical science back in the medicine cabinets of our mothers and fathers," he said. "It's the right thing to do."

Mr. Gore was accompanied on the campaign swing by House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt of St. Louis, who said that prescription drugs would be a key issue not only in the presidential race, but in Democratic efforts to regain control of Congress.

"It's a huge, huge issue," Mr. Gephardt said. "When I go door to door in my district, people undoubtedly bring it up."

Mr. Gore was headed late yesterday to San Diego, where he planned to hit the subject again before a senior citizens group.

The Democrat's position "offers a sharp contrast with Governor Bush," said Gore spokesman Chris Lehane, referring to Republican presidential rival George W. Bush.

Mr. Lehane said of the drug companies: "They're close to the Republican Party." So far this year, he said, drug makers have given the Republicans more than $3 million, compared with just over $700,000 to the Democrats.

The vice president's strategists think the prescription-drug issue is a solid one for his campaign because drug costs have been rising much faster than the overall inflation rate and the issue touches millions of families.

The proposal Mr. Gore has offered costing $255 billion over 10 years would offer prescription-drug coverage to 40 million people. His plan calls for Medicare paying for half of the prescription drug costs up to $5,000 a year.

Background documents for his proposal note that 90 percent of Medicare recipients have less than $5,000 in annual prescription-drug costs, and his package limits out-of-pocket expenses for seniors to $4,000.

"Seniors shouldn't have to sit at the kitchen table and count every penny and every pill because they can't afford the medicine that protects life and health," Mr. Gore said.

The issue has been a hot one in Congress, where Republicans have sought to fashion a more limited prescription-drug plan that would benefit the low-income elderly. Gore aides said the issue works in their favor, and they point to an industry-financed $2 million television ad campaign attacking Mr. Gore on the issue as evidence that pharmaceutical firms feel threatened.

Mr. Gore lays the blame for soaring costs "on drug company price gouging that too often causes these price hikes."

He is continuing a tour where he seeks credit for the nation's solid economic performance, but also underscoring groups he thinks are in danger of being left behind.

The background documents for Gore's proposal also make comparisons between drug costs in this country and elsewhere to make their points. One example is a 30-pill bottle of Prilosec, used to treat ulcers and heartburn. In the United States, the prescription costs $99.24, compared with $49.53 in Canada and $17.14 in Mexico.

Mr. Gore also hopes to lay claim to the issue by arguing that he has been waging the fight since 1978, when as a congressman he backed an investigation into reputed drug industry price gouging and his consistent backing for cheaper generic drugs.

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