Merkley visits with Lebanon residents

Merkley visits with Lebanon residents

Health care, unemployment and energy policy were hot topics

By:  Emily Mentzer

Almost 40 people gathered on Sunday in the Lebanon Senior Center to listen to and ask questions of U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

A number of issues were brought up, the most popular topic being health care reform.

Health care

The audience represented a number of viewpoints.

An ENTEK employee said she “would love to see government get involved in health care.”

A couple of people took a more middle ground, suggesting ways a national health plan might work.

City Manager John Hitt said he is reluctant to see a “one-size-fits-all” government plan.

“I would rather see federal government partnership with local providers,” Hitt said.

Kim Ullfers of Mutual of Omaha argued health care plans are already over-regulated, and current government health plans are not good.

“Medicare is under funded,” Ullfers said. “We already have 37 health mandates the state has imposed. Personally, I won’t use pregnancy, but I have to pay for it. This lady here probably won’t use prostate coverage, but she has to pay for it.”

Where people may have had differing opinions on the subject, they all seemed to agree on one thing: Costs.

“I hope it does not pass,” said one woman in attendance. “However, if it does pass, is there going to be a strong thing built in so the government cannot borrow from it?”

Another commenter asked how the government will pay for the health care plan.

“Government spending is already through the roof,” he said. “Will there be a surcharge for smoking, drinking, being overweight?”

After listening to the audience, Merkley explained the guiding thought behind the health care reform.

“We want to create an American system that builds on strengths we have and provides incentives to innovation and invention,” he said. “Forty-seven million Americans don’t have access to health care.”

Merkley said the U.S. runs on an employment-based system. Many unemployed do not have health care, and many working people would lose coverage with a pink slip.

Because of the way the current health care system runs, individuals or small businesses do not have market clout, he said.

“A health care exchange or gateway allows them to join a pool of hundreds or thousands to negotiate a better deal … and emphasize prevention and disease management,” Merkley said.

He used the State Accident Insurance Fund as an example of a public, nonprofit agency competing with private agencies increasing overall competition and quality of workers’ compensation benefits.

“I think it’s a feasible approach,” Merkley said.

No penalty would be imposed for unhealthy lifestyles, he said. Instead a bonus or incentive could be built in for making healthy changes, like quitting smoking, losing weight or managing hypertension.

“Most people want to change,” Merkley said. “It benefits everyone, even those who choose not to make changes, because the total costs of health care decreases. That’s the theory as presented.”

Climate energy bill

The American Clean Energy and Security Act, an energy bill recently passed by the House of Representatives, prompted a question.

“How can you justify the increase in energy costs?” a woman asked.

Merkley said the cap-and-trade model worked well to reduce industry sulfur dioxide emissions. For that reason, it is the same model being considered to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Although one effect of this bill could be higher energy rates, “any bill associated with that cost would not stand a chance,” he said, citing a source estimating a price of $3,300 a year per household.

The cost of not doing anything is $1 billion to $2 billion a day spent on foreign oil rather than on jobs in the U.S., he said.

Other energy solutions include ensuring every car made in 10 years can run the first 30 miles on electricity, growing more trees, managing forests and changing the way buildings are insulated, he said.

Forestry, unemployment

County Commissioner Roger Nyquist said Linn County has among the highest unemployment rate in the state at 16.2 percent.

“Half the land is owned by the federal government,” Nyquist said. “That land is locked up for jobs. Trees are still growing; underbrush is still growing. If more rational policy is not adopted in D.C., nature will take care of that (with fires) but what a waste.”

Merkley acknowledged millions of acres are overgrown.

“It’s not good for the ecosystem; it’s good for disease and fire,” he said. “We need to manage forests and produce revenue.”

He suggested finding other uses for Oregon’s forests such as cellulosic ethanol, a fuel created from nonfood crops.

“If you have a high value product like fuel coming out of forests, we can sustain the thinning,” Merkley said.

Mortgage woes

A woman said her mortgage is causing problems.

The economy has caused the bank to sell her mortgage many times, she said. Countrywide gave bad advice and she can’t get a straight answer out of Bank of America.

“Who is watching these banks?” she asked. “What is happening to the money that’s going into them?”

Merkley explained brokers have been allowed to steer lenders into bad loans.

“Home ownership has turned from the American dream into an American nightmare,” he said.

Merkley said he is trying to ban prepayment penalties and get rid of steering payments.

He plans to meet with Oregon bankers about setting up a hot line to help homeowners bypass loan servicers, and “let Oregonians get directly to people who can help them.”

School budget

Lebanon Community School District Superintendent Rob Hess asked about K-12 funding.

Although schools are traditionally funded at a local, not national level, the stimulus package provided some short-term money to K-12 schools, Merkley said.

So he can keep in touch with “folks on the front lines,” he encouraged Hess to keep him informed about the situation in the schools.

One of Merkley’s ideas, the Oregon Rainy Day Fund, is being tapped to help education budgets this year.

Merkley said after two years of saving, the fund had totaled $800 million.