Merkley talks health care, budget during Medford stop

Merkley talks health care, budget during Medford stop

By:  Anita Burke

Hopes for health-care reform ran high among a crowd that gathered Tuesday afternoon for a town-hall meeting with Sen. Jeff Merkley at the RCC/SOU Higher Education Center in downtown Medford.

Organizers from Health Care for America Now! passed out stickers to the roughly 100 people who came to meet Oregon's newest senator and share their concerns with him.

Steve Neuberger, a Southern Oregon organizer for the group with active chapters in 43 states, said the current health- care system — with spiraling costs and mediocre results — is unsuccessful.

"We need a serious discussion," he said. "And we want, at the end of the debate, for everyone to have quality, affordable health care."

Mentions of "a public option" garnered applause and audience members voiced support for a single-payer system.

Merkley said that although some preliminary proposals include more publicly funded health care, support for such plans will be hard to find, especially in the face of opposition from insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

Reform should focus on increasing preventive care and disease management, adding more community clinics to improve access to care, and enabling the government to negotiate with drug companies to cut Medicare prescription costs, Merkley said.

Stacy Bannerman, an Applegate resident whose husband is now serving his second tour in Iraq, asked Merkley to press for a hearing on military family issues before the Armed Services Committee.

While officials have linked suicides among soldiers and veterans to relationship issues, they haven't yet stepped up to help heal those relationships with the family left behind during deployments, she said.

"We've got a crisis going on with military families," Bannerman said, pointing out that spouses and children also need counseling or other help to deal with the stress.

Others in the audience asked Merkley to track prison reform efforts, learn more about the so-called "notch" in Social Security benefits that results in people born between 1917 and 1926 getting lower benefits because of an error in calculating cost of living in the 1970s, and guard against the federal government gaining added control over water resources to the detriment of landowners in a Clean Water Restoration Act now being considered in the Senate.

Ashland resident Susan Berryhill asked why the change voters had hoped for in the election that brought Merkley, along with President Barack Obama, to office seemed slow in coming.

"This administration has to spend 90 percent of its energy on fixing some serious problem left by the last, but we are making progress," he said, noting that the Senate has built some bipartisan support on slim margins in order to be a partner in change.

Merkley reeled off a list of accomplishments, including the passage of a new wilderness bill, pay equity law, and improved children's health care, as well as serious debate on health care, global warming and decreasing combat roles in Iraq for the U.S. military.

After the forum, Berryhill said she was encouraged by Merkley's answer.

"It's nice to hear what is being accomplished," she said, noting that Merkley also was a good listener.

"I feel like I can keep needling him," she said, adding that his committee assignments — banking, health care and the environment — match her priorities.

Merkley touted the recently enacted credit card reform, which he supported, and called for a consumer protection agency to monitor financial services. He also advocated regulatory changes that would help banks provide credit in a sound manner but keep them out of the get-rich-quick schemes that has brought the economy to its knees.

"We need to make banking boring again," he said.

When an audience member pointed out that many of the problems brought up at the meeting seemed to come from too much special interest money in the political system, Merkley pointed out that the Supreme Court has determined that such spending is protected free speech. Attempts to regulate candidate spending only pushed the money to other organizations that were less accountable.

He promised to ask Supreme Court nominees about the issue, but said he didn't expect to get an answer.

"I'm not a lawyer so sometimes that feels like a permission slip to ask common-sense questions," Merkley said, noting that a robust discussion of the money trail in politics likely would happen eventually.