SEASIDE - From health care to campaign finance reform, with a little energy conservation thrown in, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., fielded a variety of questions thrown at him during a town hall meeting in Seaside Saturday.
Nearly 50 people attending the town hall at Seaside High School had the opportunity to ask whatever was on their minds, and they also participated in a question-and-answer moment with Merkley.
As Merkley discussed the federal health care bill that was due for a vote by Congress Sunday, he asked the audience what they supported.
Most of the audience members raised hands when he asked if they supported health care insurance for previous medical conditions, not being removed from an insurance policy after paying premiums and offering more competition among health insurance companies.
"It's very expensive to enter the health insurance market," Merkely said. "By having easier access to customers, more insurance companies will be available."
With more competition, insurance companies know they must meet customer needs or customers will change companies, he added.
While the health bill will be expensive Merkley said it actually would generate more revenue than it consumes.
"Doing nothing is also really expensive," said Merkley, noting that health care costs have increased by 150 percent in 12 years and will be twice as much in eight years.
Part of the increase is due to the fewer number of businesses providing insurance, more use of hospital emergency rooms and the structure of the health care reimbursement system in the United States.
Studies show that if a state receives a higher federal reimbursement for a specific medical procedure, then more of those procedures are done in that state, Merkley said.
He praised the leadership of Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., in pursuing higher Medicare reimbursements in Oregon and 16 other states during the last days of negotiations on the health care bill. "It's absolutely unfair that some states should get less reimbursement for being more efficient," Merkley said.
A nurse asked Merkley why there couldn't be a national licensing standard for doctors and nurses. Medical professionals must apply for state licenses whenever they move, she said.
"I cannot get an Oregon license without a lot of practicum work," she said. "This may be a reason there is an acute shortage of nurses."
Merkley, whose wife is a nurse, said the requirement prevents medical professionals from going to one state where standards are lower and practicing in another state with more rigorous standards.
"States are very territorial about that," he said. "We haven't heard about any movement for a national license."
To a question about campaign finance reform, Merkley called the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that said no limits could be placed on corporations' campaign contributions.
"It's absolutely wrong and bad for democracy," Merkley said.
"Just 2 percent of Exxon's profits last year would have exceeded all of the costs of the last presidential campaign," he added.
"One thing we must do this year is put restrictions on what the Supreme Court unleashed or it will destroy democracy."
While a constitutional amendment would take a long time to pass, legislation sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., would require CEOs to disclose their contributions to any paid campaign advertisement. They would also be required to disclose all campaign spending and to notify stockholders regularly.
The bill, Merkley said, "is not completely satisfactory, but it's better than having special interests paying mega millions" without disclosure other than a committee name.
An opponent of the proposed liquefied natural gas pipelines for Clatsop County, Merkley praised Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., for co-sponsoring legislation that would returning the citing of LNG plants from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to the states. Merkley is also a co-sponsor of that legislation.
A floor vote to attach the bill to a larger bill will occur this summer, Merkley predicted. However, its fate may depend on how current legal questions surrounding the pipelines are resolved, he said. Another floor vote is anticipated later this year on energy bills that he has sponsored and co-sponsored, Merkley said. Among those are proposals to provide financial incentives for owners of commercial buildings and multi-family residences to retrofit their buildings with energy-efficient equipment and to provide 3-percent interest loans for rural co-ops to purchase energy-efficient technologies.
To a question posed by Cannon Beach resident Bob Lundy about building alliances with Republicans, Merkley said it is difficult to overcome negative messages that are deliberately and repeatedly delivered to the public. However, he said, he has worked with Republicans on several bills he is sponsoring and co-sponsoring.
"We need to focus on what is good policy and how to make it happen," Merkley said. "We need to keep pushing by whatever path is possible if it's the right policy."
Those who attended the meeting said they appreciated Merkley's knowledge of current legislation.
"He had a good sense of what was going on, who is working on what. You don't always get those answers," said Sandi Lundy, of Cannon Beach.
Carol Riley, of Surf Pines, said Merkley spoke "with an honest voice" and covered the topics well. She said she attended the meeting to hear "his take" on the issues. She also checks his Web site regularly.
"I'm really proud to have him as my senator," Riley said.
Jeanne Henderson, also of Surf Pines, who asked a tough question about the Supreme Court decision on campaign finance reform, said Merkley gave a good answer.
"I would have liked him to talk about the different options for campaign finance reform," she said. "Corporations have way too much power in Washington."
Henderson's husband, Randall Henderson, said most of his questions were answered. But, he added, he would have liked more discussion about the polarization of the two parties.
"There's nothing we can do if the other side puts out memos that say they will do anything to oppose" legislation. But his comment that 'we'll ram it through is all you can do' is not going to solve the problem," Henderson said.