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Older voters worry about Iraq as well as drug costs
Updated: 2004-10-22 00:14

Give elderly voters in this up-for-grabs Philadelphia suburb an opportunity to air their fears about health care, and they will. But chances are the topic will quickly turn to Iraq instead.


Interviews at a senior center here show the elderly are worried and confused about drug costs but also share many of the concerns of younger voters about the war in Iraq.

"Bring the boys home," said Lita Ildefonso, who remembers World War II from her childhood in the Philippines and who also was a nurse in Vietnam.

"It's just so sad that all those 19-year-olds are dying," she said as she jumped into a discussion at her sewing circle to change the topic from health to the war.

This is swing voter territory in a battleground state visited often by both Democrat John Kerry and Republican President Bush.

Many retirees interviewed recently said they are voting for or leaning toward Kerry, a Massachusetts senator. They justified this by citing health care and Iraq as key concerns, and were confused or skeptical about the sweeping Medicare law Bush signed. The law will add a prescription drug benefit in 2006 to the federal health program for the over 65s and is touted by Bush as a crowning achievement of his first term.

None mentioned the overall economy or terrorism, the other major concerns of voters. Few mentioned Social Security.

A handful of the older voters said they backed Bush in 2000 but will not do so again. Some said they plan on voting for Kerry for president but for a Republican in Senate or House races.

A well-dressed gray-haired suburban woman named Mary, who has generous retiree health benefits, said she is a Republican but would not vote for Bush because of "the numerous problems he has created for this country."

"Iraq was just a momentous error in judgment," she said.


"What do I care about? Drug prices," said Fran, 76, an undecided voter. A retired saleswoman who did not want her last name used, Fran said that even though her health care company pays most of the cost, she spends a few hundred dollars on drugs each month. "It's wiping me out," she said.

Pollsters have found that Bush appears to have generally gained little goodwill among senior citizens nationwide for his sweeping Medicare reforms.

In a close race an issue like Medicare could move enough senior voters to make a difference, according to Robert Blendon, a Harvard expert on health politics and the elderly. The elderly have tended to turn out to vote in large numbers and backed Democrat Al Gore for president in 2000, but backed Republicans in congressional races in 2002.

Even the senior citizens who consider themselves well-informed, who attend town meetings at senior centers, professed bewilderment about the coming Medicare changes.

Many did not know that they were eligible for a discount card now -- or if they had a discount card, they weren't sure if it was related to the new law.

"I've gone to lots of meetings about Medicare but I couldn't explain it if I had to," said Yvonne Taylor, a politically active community leader along with her husband Ernest, a retired librarian. "At one meeting representatives of three insurance companies were supposed to explain it but they ended up getting in an argument about it."


Others in the crowd at West Philadelphia's Haddington senior center, as might be expected in a poor minority urban area, were staunchly Democratic and worried about the war.

James Warfhur, 86, a retired steelworker still enjoying such good health that he doesn't worry about the cost of medicine, said he was going to vote for Kerry because "I don't want all those people getting killed in Iraq."

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