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October 28, 2009 > Town hall meeting with Congressman Pete Stark

Town hall meeting with Congressman Pete Stark

By Shavon Walker

Congressman Pete Stark addressed a full house at the Ruggeri Senior Center on October 17. He began with a general "state of the county" speech. Major issues in Congress are the military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several different health reform bills were also passed. The Senate has its own versions but, this month, Senate and the House must create one bill each. Stark hopes they vote on health reform by early December.

The Senate has yet to act on the energy bill but the House has already voted. Not much has been done with funding from the stimulus bill (American Recovery & Reinvestment Act); only 20 percent has been used, so far. He does not endorse one company over another but feels companies should build relationships with government agencies so they might obtain the funds needed to stay afloat. Stark cites Solera which received a loan to build a plant in Union City and plans to hire 1,000 employees.

A student-aid bill also passed. Federal Pell Grants, formerly Basic Educational Opportunity Grants, have increased to $5,350. The US also needs people with more advanced skills to stem the flow of manufacturing jobs overseas. Locally, the Head Start program, which promotes young children's readiness for school, and police departments have benefitted from $30M each.

Much of the Q&A session focused on health reform. Stark attempted to clear up any misconceptions. Under certain bills, health care reform would result in higher taxes. For instance, "Cadillac plans," or more expensive health plans, would fall under this category. However, health care plans vary by community; Minneapolis, for instance, will have a less expensive rate than Los Angeles.

The congressman and some other legislators envisage health-reform taxation on earnings above $1M. Less than 200 Union City residents would fall into that tax bracket. The burden of financing health reform through taxation would fall on those with higher incomes coupled with the House's position on reform. Medicare funds will not be appropriated for health reform. Stark stated that, in the future, copays for preventative treatment for Medicare members would cease.

Passage through Congress has been slow, even with a Democrat majority, because the party is more diverse than the Republicans.

"I think that's healthy," he said, "but it does slow things down."

He credits Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for garnering support from conservative Democrats.

Stark defined "single payer" and "public option."

Single payer is basically Medicare; one program takes care of all medical payments. Under this program, employers would be free from paying for medical insurance. He feels, however, substituting a single-payer program for all other plans is a bad idea.

A public option plan would be independent of federal control. It would be akin to company health insurance; insurance companies would charge clients premiums and patients pick their own health plans. The public option would be subject to regulations, be run by a medical board and compete with others like Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Kaiser.

Congress realizes whatever passes this year will be completely obsolete five years from now, so the focus is on creating a plan flexible enough to change with the times. As far as creating one permanent solution, "We're not that smart," he said.

Citizens wanted to know if the stimulus package might help with Medicaid, special needs children and health reform. Governor Schwarzenegger does not want to use stimulus monies for Medicaid. Consequently, funds will be cut from those programs. Nursing homes are a powerful lobby, so it is unlikely their programs will not lose much funding but programs for the poor and children are much more likely to suffer. Schools are supposed to cater for special needs students but provision is inconsistent across all establishments. Stark's goal is to make provision mandatory. He also supports an autism mandate for insurance companies.

What about the prospective timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan? The congressman does not think democracy can be provided at gunpoint. He has no problem with the US providing aid and supports stability in the region but has yet to hear of a plan that would work.

The meeting discussed illegal immigration. According to Stark, reform is overdue and legislation is the best way to manage the situation. Former president Bush would have declared an amnesty for illegal immigrants and discussed an amendment to the Constitution. The congressman does not feel these steps address the real issue.

"Part of the problem is employers. They haven't been punished at all," he stated.

In his opinion, cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers would dampen demand for such labor and, in turn, reduce the number of immigrants who enter the country illegally to find work.

Congress is considering extending the $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers but nothing has been formalized yet.

Stark mentioned the closure of the NUMMI plant in Fremont. NUMMI was the only foreign-badge company with a union contract; the move/closure may be an attempt to avoid using union workers. On the other hand, this is the first time Toyota has laid off workers. The venture is cutting costs aggressively. He and Pelosi have been in constant contact with NUMMI and are doing their best to find a solution.

For more information on the town hall meeting and other future meetings, visit Congressman Stark's website at www.stark.house.gov

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