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Merkley holds town hall in Burns

Healthcare for Americans was the main topic of discussion at a town hall meeting held by Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley on Sunday, July 9, at the Harney County Community Center.

Merkley opened by stating he was the only member of the Oregon delegation serving on the Congressional Appropriations Committee (or spending committee), and he has worked toward funding for specific programs that include the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Station in Burns, wildfire management, sage grouse programs to sustain a favorable population and avoid a federal listing, forest restoration collaboratives, rural housing, and the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program.

Before taking questions from audience members, Merkley said the biggest issue right now is healthcare.

“We’re in the middle of a major debate over a bill that was crafted in the Senate. Not in committee, but by 13 senators who met privately, and they didn’t want to show the bill. We created a big ruckus over that because, in a democracy, you need to have a bill in committee so you can have experts comment on it, entertain amendments on it, [and] take it back home and ask constituents, ‘What do you think of it?’

“We created a lot of fuss over not having a public process. We did get a draft bill a week and a half ago.  That draft bill was evaluated by the Congressional Budget Office, and ended up looking very much like the House bill.”

Merkley pointed out  that both the House bill and the Senate bill on healthcare would cause about 22 million people to lose healthcare in 10 years.

“This bill would have a big impact on rural Oregon,” Merkley said.

Merkley went on to say, “There are three things that could be done in a bipartisan way to make the current system work better: reinsurance, which means if a healthcare company goes into a new market, they are insured in case they get a disproportionate share of the really sick individuals. That is necessary for the market place to work.

“Then there is the cost-sharing. The cost-sharing is payments that the government makes in order to buy down the premiums and deductibles, which is a very important thing for the policies to be affordable. Right now, President Trump is sitting on those cost-sharing payments and not saying whether he’s going to release them and so insurance companies are pulling out of market places.

“Third, capping the high cost of drugs. The basic principal should be this — that Americans don’t have to pay any more for the drugs, and should get to pay less, than the Canadians because those drugs were largely invented with funds we invested through the National Institute of Health. We paid for the research. We shouldn’t be paying more for the drugs themselves.”

Merkley then spoke about the proposed national budget and the number of cuts it would make to rural America.

The senator then fielded questions from the audience, with the majority of questions regarding healthcare, including Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Merkley was also asked about Russian interference in the November election and if sanctions on Russia would be lifted.

“Russia annexed Crimea. Russia invaded and essentially controls Eastern Ukraine. Russia interfered in our elections in a massive way,” Merkley stated. “Seventeen branches of our intelligence world, all of them agree on this.

“The president needs to say to the president of Russia, President Putin, ‘What you all did, in attacking the foundation of our democracy, is an act of war. And if you ever, ever come close to trying anything like this again, it will be a massive counter-attack or response by the United States. It’s intolerable, it’s unacceptable, and I’m going to team up with the rest of the democratic republics in the world to make sure you don’t get away with it again.’ That’s the message that Trump should have delivered to Putin in the last couple of days. Not forget and forgive.”

Merkley added that cyber-attacks are key concerns for the country’s elections and infrastructure.

Regarding the Blue Mountain Forest Plan revision, it was pointed out that the portion of the plan that was open to public comment is not what the document looks like going forward. A letter was submitted to Merkley, and he was asked to look at the impact the plan would have on rural counties in the West.

There were also concerns brought up about North Korea and missile testing, and the federal government’s role in the housing mortgage business.

Merkley added that climate disruption and the vast concentration of money in politics is leading to corruption.

Merkley also introduced Brenda Smith of the High Desert Partnership, thanked her for the work the partnership is doing, and presented her with an American flag that flew over the Capitol.

The meeting in Burns was Merkley’s 29th town hall held around Oregon this year, and his 316th overall as a senator.

Randy Parks

Randy was born in Iowa, and spent most of his life growing up in the Hawkeye State. After a few years in college, he settled in Idaho for a decade, skiing, golfing, and working at Sun Valley Resort. He married in 1985, completed broadcast school, and moved to Harney County in 1989 to work for KZZR. After 16 years of on-air work, he left the radio station and went to work for the Burns Times-Herald.

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