HENDERSON, Nev. – Democrat John Kerry (search) urged the president Wednesday to allow the sale of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada as he discussed drug prices, health care and retirement benefits with senior citizens.
"I call on the president to do what he should have done in the first place," Kerry said. "I call on the president to get out of the way of Americans being able to import drugs from Canada at a lower price."
President Bush and the pharmaceutical industry have opposed legalizing drug imports based on safety concerns. The Bush administration has a task force examining the issue.
Kerry also pledged that he won't alter Social Security (search) retirement benefits. Government studies say the system faces significant strain as the aging baby boom generation retires, and Bush wants to overhaul the system to allow personal investment accounts.
"I will never privatize Social Security, I will not cut the benefits, and I will not raise the retirement age in this country, period," the presidential candidate said.
Kerry was speaking to seniors in one of Nevada's fastest growing cities, nearing the end of a coast-to-coast tour through closely divided states. Polls show Bush and Kerry running an almost even race for the five electoral votes up for grabs in Nevada, which attracts a large number of retirees with its lower taxes and dry climate. Bush also plans to visit Nevada this week.
Kerry wants to funnel seniors' anxiety about rising prescription drug prices into a drive to bring more older people to the polls on Nov. 2 to vote for him.
His campaign was launching an effort Wednesday to identify, organize and mobilize seniors across the country, with plans to expand state efforts nationwide to register and encourage older people to vote, including events at senior centers and retirement homes. A later campaign would inform them about absentee ballots and accessible polling sites.
Brand name prescription drug prices rose more than three times the rate of overall inflation last year, according to recent studies by AARP and Families USA.
Congress enacted a Medicare prescription drug benefit to help seniors cope with the increasing cost of medicines. Democrats and Republicans have locked horns ever since over whether the program will significantly lower drug costs for seniors.
Democrats, including Kerry, say the drug benefit means a windfall for drug companies and some health insurance companies at the expense of seniors.
"Seniors are cutting their pills in half, and we're told the best we can do for them is a Medicare bill that's riddled with waste and handouts to drug companies. We can do better," Kerry said.
Republicans sense political motives behind Democratic attacks and say seniors can realize substantial savings from the prescription drug cards available now and the full Medicare benefit, which starts in 2006.
The Bush administration has spent $87 million on television ads, mailings and other means to promote the new system, the Health and Human Services Department said.
Kerry wants to change the law to give HHS power to negotiate bulk discounts for seniors, a power Congress forbade when it wrote the program. Kerry also wants seniors to be allowed to purchase lower-cost drugs from Canada.
Older and disabled Americans strongly support those two proposals, according to a poll released Tuesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The survey found a modest political advantage for Democrats among the older and disabled Americans who use Medicare health benefits.
Survey analysts said the Medicare issue could have a decisive effect on the presidential contest in closely divided states with a large population of seniors, like Florida and Ohio.