(CNSNews.com) - Seeking to seize the momentum of the presidential race, Republican nominee George W Bush will spend the next several days talking about an issue Democrats consider to be their home turf: health care and prescription drugs.
Speaking in Florida Monday at the kickoff of a two-day swing through the state, Bush defended his 10-year plan to overhaul the Medicare system and provide for a prescription drug option by injecting competition in the Medicare system, which he characterized as "a plan that will make the system modern."
"My opponent's point of view is that, in order to have a prescription drug benefit, you'll be thrown into a government-run HMO (health maintenance organization)," Bush told seniors at a Clearwater, FL, retirement village. "You don't have flexibility. That's not fair and that's not right. You ought to have a variety of options."
The move highlights Bush's newfound weakness in once-safe states such as Florida, where the Texas governor had been leading Vice President Al Gore by double digits before the Democratic Convention, as well as a perceived Republican vulnerability on health care issues, especially prescription drug coverage for 12 million seniors who have none.
In recent weeks, Gore has made political headway out of Bush's lack of a prescription drug coverage plan, telling the Texas governor to "put up or shut up" when it came to unveiling a proposal to reform Medicare.
Bush's plan, unveiled last week, is modeled on the health care coverage extended to federal employees. Under the plan, the Medicare system would be forced to compete with private insurance programs, and seniors who chose to leave the system would receive premium support.
Seniors who choose more extensive private coverage would pay more out of pocket. A prescription drug benefit would be added to Medicare for seniors who chose to stay in the government program.
Seniors who make up to 175 percent of the poverty would be eligible under Bush's plan, which would be phased in over 10 years. States would receive $48 billion immediately to defray drug costs as the $110 billion total plan is phased in.
The Bush plan is based closely on the plan put forth by the bipartisan Breaux Commission on the Future of Medicare. That plan was rejected by Clinton-appointed commission members in a 10-7 vote, one short of the supermajority needed for passage.
Presently, Medicare, which covers 39 million elderly and disabled Americans, is scheduled to run out of funds in 2008.
The 60 Plus Association, a free market-oriented seniors group, endorsed the Bush plan Monday.
60 Plus President Jim Martin said, "Governor Bush's plan builds upon the common sense approach of the [Breaux] Commission ... It strengthens Medicare, help seniors pay for all or part of Medicare premiums and subsidizes prescription drug costs, with low-income seniors receiving special help."
However, the AARP, the nation's largest seniors group, indicated it had reservations, though the group's analysts are still studying the proposal, according to a spokesperson.
"We're glad to see both sides recognizing the importance of prescription drug coverage," said Greg Marchildon, spokesman for the AARP. "There are many ways to provide coverage, but all plans should make their first goal the long-term solvency of Medicare."
The Gore campaign released a statement claiming that the Bush plan "fails to cover millions of seniors," and it blasted his new campaign theme, "Real Plans for Real People."
Meanwhile, the Gore camp unveiled a new campaign ad attacking HMOs and stressing the need for "a real patients' bill of rights."
The ad features the Malone family, whose son Ian was born with severe brain damage. Malone was denied at-home nursing care by his HMO despite a doctor's certification that it was medically necessary.
The ad says that after Gore intervened in the situation, the company agreed to continue the coverage.
"Al Gore got the Malone family the help they needed. But knowing that all families need protection from HMO abuses, he's fighting for a real Patients' Bill of Rights," says the ad.