What comes next with the federal role in health care and the United States dispute with North Korea continue as top subjects for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden at recent town hall meetings.
"Health care and North Korea have really dominated the topics," the Oregon Democrat said Thursday night (Aug. 10) to about 200 people in the auditorium of Camp Withycombe in Clackamas.
It was the last of eight such meetings Wyden has conducted since Congress began its summer recess — and after the Senate turned back attempts to repeal or weaken coverage requirements under Democratic President Barack Obama's 2010 health-care law.
Wyden called for a public outcry against those attempts by Republican congressional majorities. Three Republicans, including 2008 presidential nominee John McCain, joined all 48 senators in the Democratic caucus to block it July 28.
"We saw a huge win for people power on this health care issue when we derailed Mitch McConnell's health care bill," Wyden said in reference to the Senate majority leader.
"Nobody thought it could be done. But we worked together … and we talked about what it (repeal) would mean for older people and kids with special needs.
"Make no mistake about it: The reason people can breathe easier tonight and we can work on the positive for the future is people power."
The defeat was good news to Mary Graham of Milwaukie, who has hereditary angioedema, a rare genetic disorder that requires medication to control swelling of body parts.
Graham said she was worried that proposed changes would alter the 2010 law's requirement for insurance coverage despite pre-existing medical conditions such as hers.
"I work, as my other patients do. I pay taxes, I give back, I have a family, and I volunteer. The list goes on, and I want to keep doing that," she said. "Because of the protections of the law and what you spoke about and what everyone is advocating, I am able to do that."
Wyden said that although Republican substitutes did not propose outright repeal, they would have allowed states to seek waivers that would effectively undercut the guarantee.
"We're not going to go back to the days when health care was for the healthy and wealthy and you could discriminate against somebody with pre-existing conditions," said Wyden, who included the guarantee in his own version of health-care legislation.
Next for health care
In addition to steps aimed at the soaring cost of prescription drugs, Wyden said, Congress needs to shore up payments to insurance companies that cover 11 million Americans who rely on individual policies.
Individual-insurance premiums are soaring for some who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid — the joint federal-state program for low-income people and some with disabilities — but too little to afford premiums on their own. They get premium subsidies in the form of tax credits, and the federal government pays insurance companies.
"The first thing we have to do when we come back in September is make sure that the government ends this roller-coaster routine where private health plans don't know what they are going to get for cost-sharing," said Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which writes health-care financing legislation.
"The Trump administration just continues to pour gasoline on the fires of uncertainty with respect to whether it will actually make these payments."
President Donald Trump has threatened to jeopardize the 2010 law, officially known as the Affordable Care Act, by suspending the payments.
"But Republicans in Congress do not want to have it on their watch that private plans fled the insurance market completely," Wyden said.
Wyden has held 843 town hall meetings since his election to the Senate in January 1996, when he pledged to do so once a year in each of Oregon's 36 counties. So far this year he has held 62 meetings, three of them in Clackamas County. Four of the eight in the current round have been in the Portland metro area.
'Sober and tough diplomacy'
On North Korea, in response to a question by state Rep. Mark Meek — a Democrat from Gladstone and an Air Force veteran — Wyden renewed his call for "sober and tough diplomacy."
"Making North Korea policy is a little more complicated than a 140-character tweet," Wyden said, referring to Trump's preferred method of communication.
Earlier this week, Trump vowed "fire and fury" if North Korea continues to test nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles — and North Korea responded with a threatened attack against the U.S. possession of Guam in the Pacific.
Wyden said he favors tougher sanctions than those approved by the United Nations — economic sanctions that would affect Chinese individuals and banks sustaining North Korea — but also negotiations that would suspend both North Korea's activities and U.S. military exercises in the region.
At Camp Withycombe, an Oregon National Guard training center, Wyden said he would join others to oppose Trump's proposed reinstatement of a ban against transgender people in the armed forces. The ban was lifted in 2016 before Trump was elected president.
Wyden spoke the day after two groups, representing five active-duty service members, filed suit against Trump. The ban, which Trump announced via Twitter last month, has not taken effect.
Wyden said there is only one standard to consider.
"Do you meet the qualifications to serve the American people and wear the uniform of the United States? If you meet the qualifications, you're in. If you don't meet the qualifications, so be it," he said.
"But the idea of throwing out objective standards for people's qualifications in order to put bigotry over national security is contrary to what I think our country is all about."