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Merkley town hall focuses on health care concerns

Other issues raised included unemployment, and the national budget


by: JASON CHANEY - At the beginning of his town hall, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley presented an American flag flown over the Capitol building in honor of the Crook County High School Career Technical Education (CTE) program. Pictured left to right are Sen. Merkley, CCHS Natural Resources Instructor Rick Kramer, CCHS Agriculture Instructor Dan McNary, CCHS Principal Michelle Jonas, and Ray Hasart, CTE coordinator for the High Desert ESD.

The new year was less than a week old when U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley returned to Crook County for his latest annual town hall.

About 50 people sat in on the hour-long session held at Crook County Open Campus on Saturday, where Merkley addressed a variety of national issues from unemployment and the budget deficit to health care reform and education.

After giving a brief rundown of his most pressing concerns, he opened the forum to audience questions. While citizens asked about topics including his stance on immigration reform, trade agreements, and fracking, the town hall was dominated by concerns about health care.

"We have a lot of transition under way with the health care bill," Merkley said, "and I have been getting vignettes of things that are working and vignettes of things that are not working."

When pressed whether he would support a repeal of the law, Merkley said it is better to keep what is working and fix what has not.

"Let's not return to the situation where virtually half the state couldn't get health care insurance as an individual because of pre-existing conditions," he said.

The health care topic later generated a contentious exchange. Merkley was questioned why, in 2010, he voted against a proposed amendment to the bill that would have prevented people from losing their existing coverage when the health care law took effect.

Merkley countered that the amendment would have stripped the guidelines for what constitutes a grandfathered plan, which he felt would have created complete lawsuit chaos.

"It didn't propose any changes in the rules," he said. "It wasn't a fix."

Merkley was then asked whether he knew, in 2010, that people would lose their insurance plans. He responded by noting that the insurance companies retired their grandfathered plans and replaced them with non-grandfathered ones, then sent out cancellation notices. He added that he has since sponsored legislation to correct the problem.

Again, Merkley was asked if he knew, in 2010, what was going to happen to insurance plans. He answered that the reaction of the insurance companies only came to light a few months ago. Nevertheless, he was asked again, and pressed for a yes or no answer, prompting Merkley to repeat his prior answer, but not answer yes or no.

When it comes to Cover Oregon, the state's new insurance exchange, Merkley expressed his displeasure with the recent online enrollment issues.

"All you really needed was an ability to compare plans across categories, like a spreadsheet, and the ability for a citizen to fill out an electronic application," he said. "It is beyond frustration and I know the state is doing everything it can to work with the (software) contractor to get that fixed."

Along with health care, economic issues were raised during the forum. Merkley addressed the end of Emergency Unemployment Compensation, a program that began during the recession to aid people who had failed to find work after their state payments had expired.

"This has a big impact not only on families who are seeking to find that next job, but also the local economy," he said.

Merkley was later asked how Congress was going to get the federal budget under control. He began by explaining that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Medicare Part D were all initiated without raising financial resources. He then said that the federal government allowed predatory subprime loans, which ultimately led to the Great Recession.

"We have to end the war in Iraq. Second, we need to get out of Afghanistan. The year before last, we spent $120 billion there," Merkley said. "We need to end predatory loan practices. Then, we have to have a path that brings our revenue and expenditures back together."

The senator said progress has been made with the annual federal deficit now half of what it was a few years earlier. He stressed that the process has to happen gradually over a period of a few more years.

"If you do it overnight, we would be in another recession with higher unemployment than we have now."

In closing, Merkley pointed out that few senators in Congress hold town hall meetings and that he is grateful to participate in them.

"The rhythm of the commentaries - things you like, things you don't like - is very, very helpful and gives me feedback that most of my colleagues don't benefit from," he said.



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