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Bush seeks to turn up the pressure in Minnesota
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President George W. Bush speaks to supporters at a campaign rally in St. Cloud, Minnesota. (MPR Photo/Annie Baxter)
President Bush took a bus tour campaign swing through a broad swath of Minnesota Thursday. He started in St. Cloud, then stopped in Blaine before ending up in Rochester for a late afternoon rally. The main event of the visit -- the president's fifth campaign stop in Minnesota this year -- was a health care forum in Blaine. There, at the National Sports Center, the president promoted his health care plan, and tore into Democratic challenger John Kerry's proposal.

Blaine, Minn. — President Bush has stepped up criticism of John Kerry's health care plan in recent days. Earlier this week in Michigan, Mr. Bush suggested Kerry's approach would amount to a "government takeover of health care." In Blaine, before what the Bush-Cheney campaign says was a crowd of 5,000 supporters, the president remained on message.

"The nationalization of health care would be wrong for American citizens," Bush said.

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Image Protestor on duty

Just three weeks ago it was the president's Democratic challenger talking about health care in the north metro. Sen. John Kerry held his forum at Anoka Technical College, where he pledged to make bringing down the cost of health care his No. 1 legislative priority.

"First piece of legislation will be health care that is affordable and accessible for all Americans," said Kerry.

As the Democratic and Republican candidates argue about their competing health care proposals, there's little disagreement that Kerry's plan would cost several times more than Bush's.

"President Bush's proposal on health care is smaller than any president's in the past half century," says Harvard University economist David Culter, who has analyzed both appproaches. "This is as big a difference in proposals for health care as we have seen in our lifetimes."

Just how much more Kerry's plan would cost than Bush's is difficult to pin down, and is an area of considerable debate. Some estimates place the cost of the Kerry plan at $700 billion over the next 10 years, compared to about $100 billion over the next decade for the Bush plan.

Kerry' would insure about 27 million of the nearly 45 million Americans currently without coverage. He would accomplish that largely by expanding safety net programs.

Kerry would help businesses cover much of the cost of catostraphic health insurance for their employees. And he would allow individuals to buy into the same health insurance program available to members of Congresss.

The Bush campaign says its plan would extend coverage to between 10 and 20 million uninsured Americans -- but other estimates put the number closer to five million. And unlike Kerry's plan that seeks to bolster the employment-based approach to providing health insurance, President Bush favors personal medical savings accounts. The president talked about that in Blaine.

"We want people owning their own health care account, so that if they change jobs in this changing world, the health care account goes with them from one job to the next," Bush said. "And as they get older and accumlate savings tax-free in a health care savings account, that asset becomes something they own and can pass onto another generation."

For small businesses, President Bush says his plan would allow them to pool their buying power to bring down health insurance premiums.

"It's a plan to help small business afford health care. That's what we want to do. Fifty percent of people who work for small businesses are working uninsured. Why don't we help small businesses?" said Bush. "Another way to help small businesses afford health care is to do something about these junk lawuits that are running up the cost of medicine and running good docs out of business."

President Bush often touts capping medical malpractice lawsuits as a big part of the solution to rising health care costs.

But Harvard economist David Culter says research on that issues does not match the rhetoric.

"Most doctors will tell you that malpractice is a big, big drag on what they do -- and certainly substantial amounts of time are spent on it. If you look at the estimates at how much additional spending there is because malpractice lawsuits are higher than they need to be, it's not a big dollar estimate," says Culter. "If you just add it all up it turns out to be a very small share of medical spending, on the order of 1 or 2 percent."

Sen. Kerry does not support capping malpractice lawsuits. The two also differ on prescription drugs. Kerry sees much of the solution to rising costs in allowing the reimportation of drugs from other countries such as Canada, where they are generally sold at a deep discount relative to U.S. prices.

Kerry says the recently passed perscription drug coverage element of Medicare helps phamaceutical companies more than seniors. President Bush says the drug discount cards are saving some people thousands of dollars a year.

In Blaine, the president said it's too early to allow reimportation, but that his administration is studying the possibility -- and that if it could be done safely he'd consider supporting it. "And it may work. But sure enough if we're not careful, drugs manufactured in the Third World -- over which we have not control -- could use Canada as a way to get into this state and then we have a problem, a safety problem."

Bush says Kerry's proposals would increase the scope of government, and take health care choices away from individuals by expanding government programs.

Although the president talks about decreasing the size of government, each of his budgets have seen double-digit increases in discretionary spending.

President Bush spoke for about an hour at the National Sports Center. Although health care was decidely the focus of his remarks, he also talked about national security, taxes, trade and energy policy and education. Timed to coincide with the president's latest campaign trip to Minnesota is a new Democraticce National Committee ad accusing the Republican president of failing to address the rising cost of health care.

For the first time in the campaign, the Democratic National Committee began airing a Minnesota-specific ad in direct response to a Bush campaign stop.

Prior to the president's appearance in Blaine, several Democrats gathered on a soccer field outside of the National Sports Center to critiize the Bush administration's health care track record.

"Why is he wrong on health care?" asked Minnesota DFL Party chairman Mike Erlandson. "If you look at the fact that there are 44 million Americans in our country that lack health care, you can realize that when you don't have proposals to address that in a serious fashion, you're wrong for Minnesota and wrong for the country on health care."

Bush's swing through Minnesota marked his fifth campaign visit to the state this year. Republicans say every time the president comes to the region, support for the Bush-Cheney ticket builds.

Two new polls, one by Mason-Dixon for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minnesota Public Radio, and another by Gallup for CNN/USA Today, showed Bush and Kerry too close to call. Earlier this week, a poll by the Star Tribune of Minneapolis put Kerry ahead, 50 percent to 41 percent with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 points.

Erlandson, the head of the Minnesota DFL, says polls mean nothing today and that the only poll Democrats are concerned about is the one that will be taken on election day, Nov. 2.

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