Merkley focuses on healthcare in Tillamook town hall

Tillamook Headlight Herald

United States Senator Jeff Merkley hosted a town hall at Tillamook Bay Community College on April 6, as part of his ongoing commitment to visiting every county in Oregon each year to hear from constituents.

At the town hall and a preceding press availability, Merkley spent much of his time discussing healthcare issues in the country while also touching on hedge fund ownership of single-family homes, infrastructure and Gaza.

Questions about the medical system came up repeatedly as patients from the recently closed U.S. Renal dialysis clinic were at the meeting to seek Merkley’s help in their quest for care. Like Senator Ron Wyden in March, Merkley pledged to lend his office’s help to the ongoing search for an alternate provider or solution to keep the center open and said that forcing patients to move to receive care was unacceptable.

More generally, Merkley identified two factors as the primary drivers of high healthcare costs and difficult-to-access care, prescription drug prices and an aging population, respectively.

“We need more healthcare and yet many of us were healthcare providers that are retiring,” Merkley said of the baby boom generation. “So, therefore you have fewer providers and you have more patients and that disparity is putting enormous pressure on the healthcare system and enormous pressure on nurses.”

Merkley noted that the issue was especially pressing in rural areas and pointed to his work in helping establish the Office of Rural Health at the Centers for Disease Control in 2023 as helping to address that disparity.

As for the larger problem, Merkley said that the dearth of trained nurses and other healthcare providers needed to be addressed by bolstering investments in their training, including upping trainers pay.

In response to a question from the Headlight Herald about high costs, Merkley said that the powerful prescription drug lobby in America had consistently stymied attempts to rein in drug prices, driving healthcare costs higher than in any other developed nation.

However, Merkley said that last year’s move to allow Medicare to negotiate prices on the most expensive drugs on the market represented a “toe in the door” and that the government should negotiate prices on all drugs.

“Toe is in the door but my feeling is it shouldn’t be a few drugs for Medicare, it should be all drugs for all Americans,” Merkley said, noting that he has introduced legislation that would achieve that goal. Merkley allowed that it would be difficult to overcome the drug lobbies’ opposition but “if everyone would take the same approach I have, which is work for the people instead of the powerful, we would pass the bill.”

Merkley sounded a similar tone when discussing the affordable housing crisis facing the nation, which he ascribed to the recent growth in hedge fund purchases of single-family homes. Merkley discussed a bill he has introduced that would restrict hedge funds to owning 100 houses and include penalties to incentivize a gradual sell-off of properties above that limit to first-time home buyers.

“It’s a long journey to get members of congress to start joining me in this because they’re afraid of the political power that hedge funds have and I say let’s depend on the political power of the people and take on the powerful,” Merkley said.

Constituents asked questions about the future of Hangar B at the Port of Tillamook Bay as well as challenges faced by rural communities in accessing federal infrastructure dollars due to matching-fund requirements.

Merkley said that he would take the issue of the hangar to colleagues in Washington to discuss potential solutions. He acknowledged the difficulties of finding funds and mentioned the waiving of requirements for low-income communities for broadband infrastructure funding.

Merkley took the opportunity to express his opposition to the continuing Israeli military operations in Gaza and the United States’ support of them when a resident asked about the conflict. Merkley noted that he had visited the Rafah border crossing during the war and consistently pushed the Biden administration to increase aid deliveries to Gaza and stop sending munitions to Israel.

“My simple version of this is America should send no bombs and a lot of aid,” Merkley said.