Thursday, September 9, 2004

DES MOINES, Iowa — Sen. John Kerry blamed the rising costs of Medicare on President Bush and the war in Iraq yesterday in a bid to win over seniors in this state that Mr. Bush lost by 4,000 votes in the 2000 election.

The Kerry campaign is trying to capitalize on the announcement last week that premiums for Medicare will rise 17 percent next year, the largest increase since the program was created 40 years ago.

“That’s ‘W,’” said Mr. Kerry, employing his new slogan suggesting that Mr. Bush’s middle initial stands for the word “wrong.” “That’s wrong — wrong choice, wrong direction, wrong leadership for America.”

The higher Medicare premium amounts to an $11-per-month increase — far short of the 50 percent increases in private health insurance premiums many Americans have seen in recent years.

The Bush campaign responded to Mr. Kerry’s criticism by pointing out that Medicare premiums are set by a formula approved by Congress that the Massachusetts Democrat supported.

“As John Kerry talks about Medicare premiums, it is important to remember that the Medicare premiums are mandated by a formula that John Kerry voted for,” said Steve Schmidt with Mr. Bush’s re-election campaign. “This formula is set in law and based on the cost of health care. That is why the president is focused on reducing the underlying costs of our health care system.”

Mr. Kerry’s speech yesterday is part of his continuing effort to shift the debate in the presidential election away from the war on terrorism — where polls show Mr. Bush holding a commanding lead — to domestic issues, such as health care — where polls show Mr. Kerry ahead.

In a town hall-style address here, Mr. Kerry laid out his plan for lowering the costs of Medicare and health care costs in general.

Mr. Kerry promised to lower health care costs by $1,000 annually for all Americans, provide insurance for all children and provide tax credits for small businesses that offer employees good health coverage.

“These tax credits total $177 billion over 10 years — more than twice as generous as the health care tax credits proposed by Bush,” according to a fact sheet provided by the campaign.

Yesterday afternoon, Mr. Kerry traveled to New Orleans, where he spoke to the National Baptist Convention and reiterated some of his promises to lower health care costs. He told the largely black audience that the Senate gives its members the best health care plan in the world.

“When I am president, America will stop being the only advanced nation in the world which fails to understand that health care is not a privilege for the wealthy, the connected and the elected,” he said. “It is a right for all Americans.”

One provision of his health care plan that has drawn skepticism is his declared aim to “get rid of the frivolous lawsuits clogging the health care system.” Mr. Kerry’s running mate is Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who made $39 million over a 10-year period as a personal-injury lawyer who specialized in suing doctors and hospitals.

“John Kerry and John Edwards oppose punitive damages — unless intentional misconduct, gross negligence, or reckless indifference to life can be established,” according to the campaign’s platform.

But those criteria are already required in most states for punitive damages to be awarded, Republicans say. In addition, they argue, Mr. Kerry’s plan does nothing about the “pain and suffering” awards that create some of the largest settlements in personal-injury cases.

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