Sanders hosts health care luncheon for seniors

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BENNINGTON — Health care has been a topic on almost everyone's mind lately, and few are more affected by the implications of that ongoing debate than seniors.

Many local seniors and advocacy groups attended a meeting and luncheon hosted by the office of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Thursday to discuss that very topic. The event was hosted by St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Bennington. While Sanders was not able to attend in person, citing a mountain of work on his desk, he did call into the meeting from his office in Burlington, and promised that he would be back in Bennington as soon as possible.

Sanders criticized the efforts of congressional Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which he said would have "thrown 23 million Americans off the insurance they have."

"It would have been cutting Medicaid by $800 billion over a 10 year period," he said, which would have impacted not only people with low income and disabilities, but nursing home care as well. Premiums also would have increased, especially for the elderly, he said.

"The question is," he said, "where do we do from here? Because we know that the status quo is not good enough. We know that premiums are too high, co-payments are too high, deductibles are too high, and prescription drug costs are outrageously too high, and that's an issue we're going to stay focused on. So we have got to go forward and improve the health care system that we have. Longer term, in my view, and I don't know whether everybody agrees with me or not, but I believe that the United States has got to join every other major country on Earth in guaranteeing health care to all people as a right."

He said that he would continue pushing for a Medicare-for-all system. "People are living longer, they are getting the health care that they need, they are happier, more secure as a result," he said, "Medicare is working for people 65 and older, we should be able to have it work for all people." He also stressed that improvements need to be made to Department of Veterans Affairs, and assured those in attendance the Social Security is not at risk.

The meeting also featured four guest speakers: Kathryn Van Haste from Sanders' office; John Miner of the Veterans Outreach and Resource Center; Jane Osgatharp, president of the Vermont Alliance for Retired Americans; and Jennifer Plouffe of the Southwestern Vermont Council on Aging.

Van Haste's work in Sanders' office focuses on veterans, health care, and small businesses. "How many of you rely on prescription medications to keep you healthy," she queried the room. Most hands went up. "I think we know how important it is that the medications we need to stay healthy, that they be affordable. There's a great quote from a former surgeon general of the United States that said, 'Medications only work if people can take them.' If you can't afford them, they can't help you... In this country one in five people can't afford their medication, and that's absolutely unacceptable."

Miner, an Army veteran and Bennington native, was president of the Vermont chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America for 17 years and runs the Veterans Outreach and Resource Center out of the Vermont Veterans Home. "We need everyone to be on top of what's going on," he said. "We cannot do enough. When we started in 1990, the VA was not very friendly. Over the years it's gotten a little more friendly, but it's only because we stayed on top of it, and we had to keep going. We're all getting up there in age. I'm 70, I figured I could relax. Forget that idea. You can't relax, you've got to keep fighting."

Osgatharp has been involved in activism for retired citizens since her retirement from the Social Security and Disability Program. "Seniors, in Vermont in particular, are the single largest group in the state, and we are not getting the services we need," she said, "at least in terms of the amount of services that we need. They have been cutting back on programs. It's like if you have a pot, and the pot gets smaller, everybody using that pot gets less. This is wrong."

She said that while Medicare for all is the goal, and hopefully will eventually come to be, her organization has been focusing on an option that could get Vermont part of the way there. "Right now we have a bill in the state legislature called 'Primary Care for All,' and that would be, you would be able to, as a citizen of Vermont, it doesn't matter what age, you would have access to primary care without having to worry about, 'How am I going to pay my co-pay?'"

Plouffe has worked as a case manager and supervisor for SVCA's Bennington office since 2015, and came into the position with over 10 years of experience working with seniors. She said that Vermont's decentralized, rural demographics present a unique challenge compared to the other places she has worked, both for seniors seeking services and for providers trying to get those services to seniors in need. "The one thing we know is that you are a huge base for voting," she said, "and that base is getting bigger by the minute and by the day... It's important that we be understand this need, and be prepared to serve those folks and do so in a manner that not only provides the services but preserves the dignity and respect of every individual that comes into our service."

The program was followed by a question and answer session. The entire event was filmed by Catamount Access Television and will be available on their channels and online, on the station's YouTube page.

Reach staff writer Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122 or @DerekCarsonBB

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