WASHINGTON (AP) -- In the campaign contest over specifics, Al Gore's latest offering is 74 pages outlining his plan to add prescription drug coverage to Medicare and safeguard its finances in "an ironclad lockbox."
The vice president held up his booklet before a TV camera Monday before starting a campaign swing through St. Petersburg, Fla., with his wife Tipper to promote it.
Gore told NBC's "Today" show his prescription plan was for all seniors, not just those with low incomes, and "they won't be forced to go through welfare offices as our opponent's plan would force them to do in many cases."
Dubbed "Medicare at the Crossroads," the book is a compilation of the Democratic presidential nominee's previously announced proposals plus new detail on how he would keep stabilize HMO participation in Medicare so that older Americans choosing managed care over the traditional Medicare fee-for-service plan will have reliable health coverage.
"Medicare faces insolvency unless we act now. I want to make a rock-solid commitment to Medicare," Gore told reporters Sunday. "The other side treats the surplus as a piggybank for a tax cut."
On Monday he added, "Both Social Security and Medicare in a Gore-Lieberman administration will be put into an ironclad lockbox," promising to veto any bill tapping into their financing.
Gore also defended the Clinton administration's decision to tap into strategic oil reserves to counter rising fuel prices, a move he publicly advocated. He said the price of crude oil had dropped since the plan was announced.
"We're not going to sit around and do nothing while consumers here are being charged these outrageously high prices," Gore said.
Republican nominee George W. Bush, interviewed on CBS' "The Early Show," called the plan "a bad idea" that carries national security risks and "is spurred by short-term political gains."
For the year 2001, 65 managed-care providers have already notified the government that they will be dropping out of Medicare. This will require an estimated 934,000 beneficiaries to switch HMO plans.
"The vice president wants to help stabilize the market for beneficiaries and tell HMOs motivated by profit, 'Look, you need to be a fair player in this,"' said Gore policy adviser Sarah Bianchi.
Gore is proposing to double to two years the minimum requirement for HMOs contracting with the government to provide health care to the elderly and disabled in Medicare.
He also would double the penalty for HMOs who drop patients, barring them from rejoining Medicare for two years. And, he was proposing to authorize the secretary of health and human services to ban permanently HMOs that prove to be "cherry picking" healthy beneficiaries.
For Gore, such detail is as much campaign strategy as policy. He has tried to give voters the impression he is the candidate with specific plans and that Bush has made nothing but general campaign promises, with no way of paying for them.
"It looks like we're going to be in Week Two of the vice president making things up," said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Gore has proposed using $338 billion of the projected 10-year budget surplus to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare that gives free complete coverage to the elderly poor and a voluntary cost-sharing benefit to others. He also would create a "fast-track" way of bypassing Congress each time a new preventive screening process is developed and needs to be added to Medicare's benefit package.
As for Bush, Gore contends that his rival's agenda "reflects a return to the oldest Republican alternatives to Medicare in the first place -- relying on state-run programs, or private insurers, instead of a national insurance system for seniors."
Bush's $158 billion Medicare plan would encourage private-market competition to Medicare, cover the elderly poor's drug costs through state-run programs and subsidize choice in drug plans for other Medicare beneficiaries.
Gore's Florida trip, capped by a $1.5 million fund-raiser with singer Jimmy Buffett in Miami, was meant to prove the seriousness of his battle to win the state's 25 electoral votes.
St. Petersburg is in a heavily Republican district and Gore was combing for converts, said Karl Koch, Gore's chief Florida strategist.
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