By Stefanie Jackson – U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria updated her Eastern Shore constituents on issues of concern at a town hall meeting Nov. 9 in a packed room at the Cape Charles civic center.
Ava Wise moderated the event as Luria answered written questions submitted by audience members on healthcare and the environment.
She was asked if she favors expanding the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or implementing Medicare for All.
Luria said the ACA was a “milestone” in providing health care to people who could not access it previously, but it isn’t perfect and premiums are still too high.
However, she is “very happy” about Medicaid expansion in Virginia, which has given 400,000 more people access to healthcare.
Luria asks herself three questions when considering new healthcare plans: “Is this going to improve access to care? Is it going to drive costs down? And is it going to get people a better outcome?”
That said, she is “not onboard” with Medicare for All, which has “lofty” goals but no real plan to fund it.
Instead, Luria supports the creation of a “public option” for health insurance, intended to create competition for private health insurers and drive costs down.
One possibility for the public option is “Medicare-lite,” which could accept people as early as age 50 or 55. Medicare typically accepts applicants age 65 or older.
Luria’s thought is that offering the public option to older adults and leaving younger, healthier individuals in the main insurance pool will lower overall costs.
Earlier this year, U.S. Senators Tim Kaine, of Virginia, and Michael Bennet, of Colorado, introduced their own bill for a public option for health insurance called Medicare-X.
Luria also supports HR-3, a bill that would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug costs and allow people with private insurance to benefit from those cost reductions as well.
She was asked what she will do to ensure the U.S. improves its “energy economy,” reducing carbon dioxide emissions and combating sea-level rise and recurrent flooding.
Luria said, “I think we need to have an ambitious goal of moving to greener and cleaner energy,” but “you cannot count on the sun to shine or the wind to blow all day, every day.”
Her recommendation for filling in the gaps is nuclear energy. Luria and four cosponsors have introduced bipartisan legislation in the House of Representatives to “advance the next generation of nuclear power” by building two prototype reactors.
Luria said the U.S. isn’t “going backwards” by researching nuclear power. “We’re not talking about building 1960s-era, pressurized water reactors.”
In Dominion Energy’s service area, 30% of Virginia’s electricity comes from nuclear power, she added.
Dominion Energy is building two test platforms for wind power roughly 44 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach, on about 144,000 acres leased from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. It’s the first project of its kind in federal waters.
It could mean an opportunity for the Eastern Shore, since there are only two rail lines in the region – one in Cape Charles and one across the Chesapeake Bay in Little Creek – that could load wind turbine parts onto barges for transport, Luria said.
She was asked about overfishing menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay. They are used commercially to feed farm-raised fish and make omega-3 fish oil nutrition supplements.
Menhaden are vital to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem because they feed on plankton and algae and are food for predators such as flounder and drum.
Luria believes there are not enough consequences for overfishing, and she is researching what can be done at the federal level to “levy penalties on companies that don’t comply with regional marine fisheries commissions.”
One questioner stated that, according to the World Wildlife Federation, the global wildlife population has declined by 60% since 1970.
Luria said the House has fought to keep animals like the grizzly bear on the endangered species list, and it has a package of bills to prevent “federal public lands from being exploited for mining and drilling” and protect wildlife.
Federal Minimum Wage
When asked about the federal minimum wage, Luria said the House passed legislation to increase it, but she does not foresee the Senate acting on it.
Virginia is “still lagging behind” with a state minimum wage that matches the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, which is “not a living wage,” Luria said. She’s “counting on our partners in Richmond to try and move Virginia forward.”
Luria responded to the assertion that Virginia public education does not get its fair share of federal funding.
Public schools are funded 90% at the state and local level and about 10% at the federal level. Most of the federal funding comes in the form of free and reduced school lunch programs and funding for IDEA, or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, she said.
Luria suggested that IDEA contains unfunded mandates, and when schools have to use local funds to provide services for students with disabilities, that means less money for school buildings and teacher pay.
“At the federal level, I think fully funding the IDEA is very important,” she said.
To attract teachers to the Eastern Shore, affordable housing is needed, Luria said. The lack of affordable housing is “a barrier to bringing professionals here,” including teachers, doctors, and NASA-Wallops Flight Facility employees.
Luria affirmed that she supports the Dreamers, illegal or undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. before age 16, and the House passed the Dream Act earlier this year.
She also supports the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which seeks to “provide permanent resident status to agricultural workers.”
The bill would allow farm workers to get five-year, renewable visas, which would help 12-month workers who currently cannot get 12-month visas. They could also take the next step and apply for permanent residency.
Permanent residents are granted the legal right to live and work in the U.S. indefinitely and receive a green card. They cannot vote or hold public office, like a U.S. citizen, but permanent residency is a step on the path toward citizenship.
On the Eastern Shore, nursery workers would benefit from the bill. Luria is working to get the aquaculture industry included as well.
Luria said the bill is a compromise. Employers would be required to use E-Verify to confirm their employees’ eligibility to work, but the requirement would be phased in during a period of two to five years.
Decriminalization of Marijuana
Luria is an advocate for decriminalizing marijuana and removing it from the list of Schedule I drugs, which are classified as having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.
She said there are two distinct benefits in decriminalizing marijuana – fewer incarcerations for nonviolent crimes, and an alternative to opioids for chronic pain management.
Luria is in favor of finding federal funding for the proposed Hampton Roads Sanitation District project that would provide sewer service and take over maintenance and billing in several towns in Northampton and Accomack County. She has not yet named any specific sources of potential funding.
One audience member asked how long it would take the U.S. to recover from what Luria called the “unplanned, unannounced, abrupt withdrawal of our forces from Syria.”
Luria is “very concerned” about the “national security environment, how we’re seen by our allies.” She recently traveled to Jordan and Afghanistan and met their king and president, respectively.
“They see their neighbor, where we just drew out, we didn’t say anything ahead of time and left them with a crisis, and we left the Kurdish forces who have been our allies and fought and died alongside us … to fend for themselves in the mix with Russia and Iran and everyone else … while Turkey invades. They’re obviously very concerned.”
Living situations are “incredibly tenuous. People don’t just live normal, safe lives where they can go out and buy food and take their children to school.”
But Luria was impressed by the progress Afghanistan has made for its women. About half the president’s cabinet were women, “all but one of them women under 40, Western educated, and very competent.”
“From where we were many years ago to today, none of these women had any of these opportunities.”