Merkley focuses on healthcare, coronavirus in Benton County town hall

Concerns about healthcare and effects of the coronavirus were the primary topics of discussion Wednesday morning during U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley’s virtual town hall meeting with Benton County residents.

In a wide-ranging, one-hour question-and-answer session, the Oregon senator first turned his attention to the local impact of COVID-19 before he returns to the Senate next week after a recess.

Merkley noted that the number of young people in Benton County affected by coronavirus is surging. Previously, people under age 30 accounted for 20% or fewer of new cases; he said that number is now 75%.

Test results are lagging, sometimes as long as a week.

“That’s way too slow to be helpful for an effective strategy of testing and tracing,” Merkley said.

Benton County’s unemployment rate has jumped from 3% to 10% during the pandemic.

“In some ways that’s almost good for the county because over on the coast in Lincoln County we’re talking 24% unemployment,” the senator said. “Still an impact on the thousands and thousands of people who have lost their jobs.”

Merkley said area health centers have received help in the form of a $146,000 grant through the national telehealth fund.

He said Oregon State University has been forced to cut $124 million from its budget. OSU has received about $15 million to help students attend classes.

Merkley said the fact that five million Americans have lost health care in the last few months “shows there isn’t a simple, seamless system for all Americans.”

He said the Trump Administration is allocating billions of dollars to companies for vaccines, money not provided previously. But, Merkley points out, the administration removed a point of agreement that prevents companies from gouging when a vaccine is approved.

“That’s another outrageous example of corporate influence,” he said. “They’re going to get billions of dollars of our taxpayer money, your money, to develop the vaccine, to test the vaccine, and then be able to turn around and gouge Americans at any price they want.”

Merkley is joining a legislative effort to overturn that.

When asked about the disproportionate impact on Blacks, Latinos and others from the virus, Merkley said he’s sought numbers to research discrepancies in health care and urged the federal government to direct money to address disparities.

“I’m hoping to advance any other ideas folks have for this upcoming bill, trying to really push for us to address communities that have previous challenges in an aggressive and bold fashion,” Merkley said.

The discussion turned to school funding.

Merkley said there’s a House act that including such funding that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a U.S. Senator from Kentucky, has stalled on for about six weeks. Merkley said that’s unacceptable as schools are planning for the coming year.

The same act includes money for state and local governments, healthcare, election protection and virus testing and tracing.

“We’ve tried to take on the president’s effort to use economic blackmail to force school districts into a certain profile,” Merkley said, “because essentially it’s a very difficult decision how your structure a school so to maintain a maximum amount of educational advancement for our children while keeping them safe. This is no place for election politics, and the president is way off base on this.”

Along with others, Merkley is fighting efforts to continue channeling resources to the U.S. military and questioning whether funding might be better spent elsewhere.

“National security is very important, but are we doing a cost-effective job of that?” he asked, noting that one trillion dollars is slated to be used on nuclear weapon redevelopment in the next 20 years.

Merkley is co-sponsoring with Bernie Sanders a bill calling for a 10% reduction in military spending “because I do believe that we are sliding backwards as a nation. Our prospects for the future are going to depend less on the size of our military budget than the size of our infrastructure budget and our education budget and cost-effective healthcare system.”

Merkley regularly opens his town halls by recognizing those doing important work for communities.

He did that Wednesday by noting Casa Latinos Unidos and inviting Claudia Torres, its executive director, to speak.

Casa Latinos Unidos offers education, housing and legal services to Latinx, as well as leadership training and special events. The group set up an emergency pandemic fund to help families that didn’t qualify for unemployment or stimulus checks and haven’t been able to return to previous employment levels.