By CHARLES BOOTHE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
WELCH, W.Va. — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders made a return trip to McDowell County Sunday afternoon, telling a town hall meeting audience that he will continue to stand up for working people and fight injustice as well as tax breaks for the rich.
“I was here during the campaign,” he said, referring to a visit to the Two Loaves and Five Fishes food pantry in Kimball last year during the presidential primary. “I held many town hall meetings throughout the campaign and this one stood out in my mind. This is a community with a lot of problems but they (residents) are determined to solve those problems.”
Sanders’ stop this time was at Mount View High School to tape an “All In with Chris Hayes” show for MSNBC. The show will air tonight at 8 p.m. on that network.
About 300 people were in place in a curtained area of the school’s Bob N. Jack Auditorium, giving the feel of a television studio.
Before Sanders came out to sit in a theater-in-the-round setting, a production assistant organized the crowd and went over the taping protocol.
Then Hayes told the audience that the show would not be able to cover all of the issues in the county and the region.
“I promise you will leave here frustrated,” he said, referring to the limited time constraint on the topics that could be covered.
Sanders entered to a rousing applause and sat with several area residents, who rotated during the taping segments.
Those residents included state Del. Ed Evans (D-McDowell) and Dr. Lori Tucker, an ob-gyn specialist from Princeton.
Sanders said McDowell County is seeing many problems other small towns in rural areas are seeing, even in Vermont.
“Young people are leaving our small towns because they can’t find jobs and that is going on all over the country,” he said, adding that challenges also include education, environmental issues and health care problems.
After discussing Pres. Donald Trump’s pledge to bring back coal jobs and help West Virginians, Hayes asked Evans about the most immediate challenges in the county.
“Jobs,” he said, adding that because of the lack of jobs people can’t take care of themselves.
“Roads are huge also,” he said. “The Coalfields Expressway and King Coal Highway would make a difference (in helping to bring in jobs).”
Hayes said he had driven down the Coalfields Expressway near Beckley on his way to McDowell County.
“It literally dead ends and then you are on winding roads,” he said of the project’s abrupt end near Sophia.
Sanders said creating this infrastructure is crucial to help open up the area for economic development, and that infrastructure also includes roads as well as broadband and cell phone service, both of which are lacking in the county.
“You are not going to create jobs unless you have good cell phone service and broadband,” he said. “How is it possible for businesses to come to a community if they don’t have broadband access?”
Roads not only need to be built, they need to be repaired, he said, adding that an investment in infrastructure would create jobs, referring to a push to invest $2 trillion nationwide and create 15 million jobs in the process.
The coal industry woes surfaced and Sanders had high praise for coal miners.
“I grew up in rent-control housing in Brooklyn,” he said. “Coal kept my house warm. Thank you.”
Hayes asked if, as Trump said during the campaign, coal jobs will return.
Sanders didn’t directly answer the question, but Evans, who said he voted for Trump, did.
“Most of the jobs left because of mechanization,” he said. “It doesn’t take nearly as many men. I don’t think he (Trump) can (bring back the jobs).”
But Sanders did address the benefits that coal miners could lose.
“Right now, there are tens of thousands of coal miners who were promised health care benefits when they retired,” he said. “And Sen. (Mitch) McConnell (of Kentucky, a coal mining state) is holding up legislation that makes sure they have the health care they deserve . As a nation, we owe these folks a great deal. The promises that were made to them should be kept.”
Sanders was referring to the funding for more than 22,000 retired coal miners’ benefits that will run out a the end of April if Congress does not act.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare) also received a lot of attention, including its impact on the state if it is repealed and replaced.
Tucker said that after the ACA was passed, many patients in West Virginia were able to get health care coverage.
“It ended up being tremendous for us,” she said. About 175,000 residents across the state were eligible under the ACA’s expanded Medicaid program.
That coverage could be in jeopardy if the ACA is repealed and the state cannot afford to pick up the coverage if it is lost, she added.
Sanders said health care is a right and everyone should be eligible to receive it.
“We already end up spending far more (on health care) per capita that countries who have socialized medicine do,” he said, adding that the cost of prescription drugs is higher here than in any nation in the world.
“I think Obamacare is not a perfect program by any means,” he said. “But in West Virginia and other states it has been a very positive development. It is no small thing that as a result of Obamacare 20 million more Americans got health care coverage, and many of them had never had it before.”
Sanders said Trump won West Virginia in a landslide, but questioned if the state is getting what voters thought it would.
“If Obamacare is replaced, we are looking at a hundred thousand who got Medicaid expansion and will lose that,” he said, adding that what is being proposed to replace Obamacare is not a health care bill, “it should be seen as a huge tax break for the wealthiest people in America.”
“It will give $275 billion in tax breaks to the top 2 percent (over a period of 10 years),” he said.
The possible loss of black lung benefits if the ACA is repealed also surfaced.
Hayes said it could be much harder to be eligible for those benefits if the burden of proof a person having the disease is shifted back to the miner or family.
The late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia pushed through a provision related to black lung that if any miner with at least 15 years in the mines has black lung, the company had to prove otherwise.
“The irony is that many of the folks who supported Trump are going to be hurt the most,” Sanders said, again pounding on the theme of the ones who will benefit will be the wealthiest people in the country, not working people.
It’s a moral issue, he said, and pushing working people aside to give huge tax breaks to the rich is “not what this country should be about.”
Sanders said the goal should be to improve the ACA, not “throw it out.”
“I’ve got to tell you, I’m not a great fan of the pharmaceutical industry in general,” Sanders said. “For them to make to make billions in profits by getting young people addicted and ruining their lives … we have to start holding them accountable.”
Sanders also said punishing drug addicts is not the answer, but treatment is, and he expressed surprise that McDowell County does not have a treatment center.
“Getting high is a tragic alternative,” he said. “We have to deal with that reality. Putting people behind bars does not solve the problem. We need treatment centers at ground zero of the opioid epidemic (McDowell County).”
The county has the highest per capita overdose drug deaths than any county in the nation.
Tucker said she sees many pregnant women who are addicted and she blames doctors for much of the problem.
“It’s a supply and demand issue,” she said. “You have to have a prescription. Where is the start of the problems. The doctors start the problem.”
Tucker also said repeal of the ACA could take away resources to help those addicted.
“Treatment will go by the wayside,” she said.
Sanders also said that education is the “key to the future.”
“This is not radicalism,” he said. “I want every kid in Burlington, Vermont and in McDowell County to know that if he or she studies hard and does well in school they can go to a public college or university tuition free. That transforms education because kids know they have an opportunity regardless of the income (of their families).”
Sanders said it’s time to stop giving tax breaks to billionaires and “invest in working people.”
“There are people who intentionally want to undermine government,” he said. “Government is us coming together trying to solve our problems. Do you think the major corporations or drug companies will stay up at night worrying about the people of Vermont or West Virginia?”
Sanders said the democracy needs to be “revitalized.”
“What we need to do is stand up together as a big family and demand justice for all of the people and not let those who want to divide us get away with it,” he said.
Sanders ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for President last year, losing to Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Misbah Muzaffer and her brother Hasan, both students at Bluefield College and McDowell County natives, attended the event and sat on the stage behind Sanders.
“This area is receiving a lot of attention,” Misbah said. “We all benefited from coal and it left. We need to help the people here.”
“I’m excited to see Bernie,” Hasan said. “This is a good gesture to show some politicians care about the issues here.”
For Regina Salyers of Baptist Valley in Tazewell County, who is director of the area’s Agency on Aging, seeing Sanders was all about his support of many of the programs that help seniors.
“He will stand up for them,” she said, adding that she wanted to learn as much as she could about the impact of any changes that could be coming.”
Salyers said Sanders has the best interest of people in mind. “He will stand up for us,” she said.
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