- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2001

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. Democrat Mark R. Warner promised an AARP forum yesterday he would create a Cabinet-level position in Virginia for senior citizens if elected governor this fall.
Mr. Warner and his Republican opponent, Mark L. Earley, both answered questions in front of about 450 members of the AARP during a candidate forum in Williamsburg.
Both men told the gathering they support spending for seniors on a variety of fronts, and both have records of paying attention to issues important to senior citizens Mr. Earley as the state's attorney general, and Mr. Warner through his charitable foundations.
Mr. Earley announced he would create an office to help register seniors for existing prescription-drug assistance programs, but it was Mr. Warner's announcement of a "secretary for older Virginians" that dominated the day.
Programs for seniors are scattered throughout the Virginia government structure particularly health services, but also transportation programs and tax-relief policies and Mr. Warner said his new secretariat would coordinate those efforts.
A handful of other states have tried the concept, and Mr. Warner estimated it would cost $500,000 to establish the position in Virginia.
"My feeling is we will more than make up for that in terms of savings by having better coordination of services," he said.
If elected, Mr. Earley said, he will expand a pilot program in Southwest Virginia that helps link older and low-income residents with a consortium of drug companies that offer discounts or free medicines to those who qualify. Expanding the program statewide would cost $4.8 million, he said.
"It ultimately saves us money in the long run," he said. "Without it, you seniors don't have the drugs or anybody, for that matter by not taking those drugs they then wind up in the hospital or nursing home, in which the costs, we all know, are very high."
The two candidates spoke separately to the group they weren't even allowed to be in the room at the same time and were asked the same set of questions.
Both men had experience with issues important to senior citizens in particular, and the forum gave them a chance to show it.
As attorney general, Mr. Earley made consumer protection a priority. He went after sweepstakes companies that often targeted senior citizens, and he was a primary backer of legislation aimed at reducing unwanted telemarketer calls.
Mr. Warner, who has never held elected office, has used his business wealth to set up several organizations that aid seniors, including SeniorNavigator, whose volunteers are trained to search the Internet to link seniors with the health information they need.
He said it is a priority that touches home, with his mother suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
"An issue I'm living firsthand with my mom at this point, and I can think of nothing more important, and nothing that we owe our parents and grandparents more, than quality care," he said.
The two agreed on some issues.
Both men, for example, said they would support a bill to prohibit utilities from disconnecting seniors' service for nonpayment in the middle of a harsh winter or hot summer, though Mr. Warner said he was worried about fraudulent claims from consumers as well. Both also said they wanted more families to be able to take care of elderly parents at home.

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