In the latest CBS News poll, health care and Medicare rank with education and Social Security as top concerns for Americans this election year, reports CBS News Correspondent Anthony Mason.
To see why, consider the battleground state of Pennsylvania, where health issues could prove decisive for many voters in the campaign countdown.
From Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and in all the farm towns in between, the Keystone State is listening closely to George W. Bush and Al Gore.
"We spend a lot of money to make sure people get health care in Texas and we're doing a better job than they are at the national level for reducing uninsured," said Bush, defending his record as Texas governor during the second presidential debate last week in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
"I'd like to see eventually in this country some form of universal health care, but I'm not for a government-run system," said Vice President Gore during that same encounter.
In a state with the second highest number of elderly in the nation, Pennsylvania voters are wondering which candidate can deliver on making healthcare affordable. One of those voters is Karen Chronister, a fitness instructor.
"I hear fear," she said. "I have a lot of people in the class who are diabetic, who have pre-existing heart conditions, who have high blood pressure. When they started taking their heart medication it was $50 a month, and now its $80 for a month, pretty soon it's probably gonna be $100 a month."
The 50-year-old Chronister doesn't just worry about her students--she worries about herself and her son. Self-employed and recently divorced, she's one of the 44 million Americans with no medical insurance. Last year, she injured a disc in her back.
"Just like that I went from being a very healthy person with no prescriptions to having close to $200 for myself just for prescription costs," Chronister added.
Another Pennsylvania voter, Caroline DaCosta, nearly died in a car accident 8 years ago. Today, she needs more than $4,000 a year in drugs to treat kidney and liver damage. Caroline scrimps on food, but regularly has to skip taking her medication.
"You just said well, 'I just won't take this, I'm feeling fine. I'll just cut this out for a week'--and every time I did, I got into big problems," she said.
Both Democrat Gore and Republican Bush say they will help uninsured Americans like Chronister and DaCosta. Bush wants to give families up to $2,000 a year in tax credits to buy private insurance. Gore favors expanding an existing federal program for uninsured children to include their parents.
On Medicare, the vice president says he'll help Americans who need insurance "buy into" the program early, beginning at age 55. The Texas governor would reorganize Medicare, letting private insurers offer competing services.
On prescription drugs, Gore offers to subsidize them under Medicare. Bush would leave drug coverage to private insurers, but subsiize premiums.
Despite a race that got much tighter in the last week, CBS News polls show that on healthcare, it's Gore who benefits from voter frustration over high drug prices and managed care.
Americans, by a margin of 53-27%, told the poll that they believe the Democrats are more likely to improve health care than Republicans. Looking at the candidates, they rate Gore both more likely to make healthcare affordable than Bush--and more likely to lower the costs of prescription drugs.
So, how do the candidates play in Pennsylvania? Caroline DaCosta just returned from Canada, where drug prices are controlled. She paid less than half-price for her prescriptions. She said she'll vote for Gore, because she hopes he will rein in drug company profits.
"If they can do that there, why can't we do that here? I just don't want to hear the excuses--I want results," DaCosta said.
Karen Chronister plans to vote for Bush, but she worries that neither candidate can control te real problem--runaway healthcare costs.
"It's nice to say they will pay, they will pay, but there's nothing to curtail the rising cost," said Chronister.
One big difference between this election and the one 8 years ago: This time around, neither Bush nor Gore has a plan for universal health coverage on the table.
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