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Kerry says Bush hides Medicare fees

TOLEDO, Ohio -- Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry yesterday told senior citizens and workers in Toledo and Milwaukee, two vote-rich cities in battleground states, that President Bush had ''tried to hide the truth" about rising medical and drug costs, charging that the White House had doctored a Medicare trustees' report to cover up increases in out-of-pocket health care expenses for the elderly.

The Massachusetts senator also attacked Bush's war policy in Iraq yesterday -- a day when at least 47 Iraqis were killed by a suicide bomber as they waited at a Baghdad police station. Kerry called the war ''a mess growing greater and greater on the ground each day." He blamed US policy for making ''elections harder to hold" there because growing swaths of Iraq are ''held by terrorists and jihadists and insurgents."

Starting the 49th day before the election, Kerry spoke before dozens of senior citizens at the St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care in Milwaukee, using a large chart to show that a report on rising Medicare costs had been left out of a 2004 administration report, even though it had been included in previous years.

''Guess what -- this year, election year 2004, and just like they tried to hide the truth from the American people about the real cost of Medicare, just like they intimidated and bullied a worker in the Medicare program not to tell Congress and the American people the real cost, this year they play games with the American people again," Kerry said.

Kerry read aloud from a sheaf of Medicare reports in his hand that estimated that out-of-pocket expenses under Medicare would eat up 37.2 percent of a senior citizen's Social Security check in 2006. Turning to the chart, he said that this data was missing from the 2004 report, while similar statistics were in reports from 2001, 2002, and 2003.

Bush campaign officials said yesterday that the chart in question was dropped from the 2004 Medicare because it was misleading, since it did not reflect the new prescription drug coverage and other benefits for Medicare recipients. ''John Kerry is resorting almost to a politics of conspiracy theory," said Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt.

Kerry found himself on the defensive in responding to Bush's attack Monday that the Kerry health care plan amounted to a ''government takeover." Kerry told his Milwaukee audience, ''We don't have a government program -- I learned the lesson of '93 and '94," referring to the Clinton administration's failed attempt at government-run universal health coverage.

At the same time, Kerry estimated that his proposals would cover about 96.5 percent of Americans in three years, after which government officials would find a way -- through federal health programs or other means -- to cover the rest. In language that evoked the Clintons' proposals for government-run health care, Kerry added yesterday: ''I'm committed to universal health care coverage."

Kerry advisers said the candidate focused on health care because it is a major issue for voters this year and a Democratic priority that some of his consultants have urged him to hammer harder. The campaign, however, had sent out prepared remarks for his early morning speech to retired voters in Milwaukee, a set of crisp attack lines against Bush. But Kerry delivered few of those exact lines.

Kerry told reporters Monday night that he was feeling tired. Spokesman David Wade said afterward that the candidate was ''on message," and senior adviser Joe Lockhart, who is now largely shaping communications strategy, said that a chorus of critics -- including some Democrats -- have urged the campaign to focus more on domestic issues like health care and job creation, and education, and that Kerry was seeking balance in his remarks.

Lockhart said internal campaign polls indicate that Kerry's latest attack strategy -- an attempt to drive up Bush's negative poll ratings by questioning his honesty and character -- is working. Lockhart would not disclose the data but said Kerry's attacks over the 17 percent increase in Medicare premiums this month -- coming one day after Bush promised a new policy on Medicare -- had damaged the president's credibility.

To sharpen Kerry's message on the trail, the campaign yesterday tapped veteran Democratic startegist Michael McCurry, a former spokesman at the Clinton White House and US State Department, to begin traveling full time with Kerry and advising him on communications strategy and policy.

Meanwhile, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, often credited with giving a boost to Kerry's primary campaign, begins a seven-week election drive for his Massachusetts colleague with two campaign stops in Pennsylvania on Friday.

Patrick Healy can be reached at phealy@globe.com

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