Sanders talks health care, wealth inequality at Claremont town hall

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    Jess Falero, of Portland, Maine, hugs Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., after his appearance in Claremont, N.H., Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019. After telling of her traumatic experiences after aging out of the foster care system, Falero questioned Sanders about what he would do to help youth in state care transition into adulthood. "I noticed I made him uncomfortable," said Falero. "He didn't really have an answer. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Judith Koester, of Claremont, middle, listens to a question and answer with Bernie Sanders in Claremont, N.H., Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019. Sanders' appearance followed a rally held by activists from the organizations New Hampshire Youth Movement and Rights and Democracy. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Bernie Sanders answers questions from activists from the New Hampshire Youth Movement and Rights and Democracy at Monarch Farms in Claremont, N.H., Oct. 31, 2019. Sanders filed paperwork for his candidacy in the New Hampshire Presidential Primary in Concord earlier in the day. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/31/2019 9:48:14 PM
Modified: 10/31/2019 9:48:01 PM

CLAREMONT — Hours after making a key stop in Concord, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., stood in a barn in Claremont, fielding questions Thursday afternoon from activists about health care, immigration reform and wealth inequality.

“This state has played a profound role in transforming the political conversation,” Sanders told the crowd of about 100 attendees, many of them supporters who had helped him win the New Hampshire primary in 2016. Sanders said that when he put forth ideas about raising the minimum wage and addressing climate change during the 2016 campaign cycle, he found support in New Hampshire residents.

“The establishment told me that those ideas were too wild and extreme. But the people of New Hampshire did not,” he said to cheers from the crowd.

Sanders touched on a lot of those same ideas during the Rights and Democracy Town Hall on Thursday, a question-and-answer event hosted by local activist groups People’s Action, Rights and Democracy and New Hampshire Youth Movement. It was the last stop on Sanders’ tour around New Hampshire this week, during which he held rallies in Keene and Concord and officially filed papers with the Secretary of State’s Office earlier in the day to run in the New Hampshire primary.

The topic of health care costs became the forefront of the Claremont discussion, with attendees asking questions about opioid abuse, mental health and the rising cost of some prescription medications.

“Parents are burying their children in mass numbers, there are mass graves of our children across this country,” said Brenda Siegel, a Newfane, Vt., resident and member of Rights and Democracy, addressing the opioid crisis. Siegel, who lost in a Democratic primary for governor in Vermont last year, and another activist asked Sanders how he would combat opioid addiction.

“Addiction is a health issue, not a criminal issue,” Sanders said, adding that he wants the country to focus on treating addiction rather than jailing people with substance abuse problems. He said that his proposed single-payer “Medicare for All” plan would support that goal.

“It says health care, mental health, is a human right, not a privilege.”

For Tanya Vyhovsky, an Essex, Vt., resident and member of Rights and Democracy and People’s Action, the concern lies more with the cost of prescription medication. She told the presidential candidate that over the past three years she’s spent more than $20,000 on a medicine that treats severe allergic reactions because the pharmaceutical company raised the cost of the drug.

“My life is at stake every day. … This is not a civilized health care system.”

Sanders promised his Medicare for All plan would significantly reduce the cost of out-of-pocket expenses, promising that no one would pay more than $200 a year for a prescription. He also assured Vyhovsky and the room that CEOs of pharmaceutical companies raising the price of medication would be held accountable.

Sanders has faced criticism from some Democratic rivals, including former Vice President Joe Biden, over his health care proposal to abolish private insurance, because it would include a new tax to pay for the Medicare for All program. He didn’t address the question of funding Thursday afternoon, but he did place the blame for high prescription costs on pharmaceutical companies.

“The pharmaceutical industry has spent billions of dollars … in the last 20 years buying politicians through campaign contributions and through intensive lobbying efforts,” Sanders told the crowd. “That will end when we are in the White House.”

In addition to health care issues, several activists raised questions about wealth inequality, housing and poverty.

“It’s insane that tonight we will have nearly one half of a million people on the streets or in emergency housing,” Sanders said. He added that he has a plan to build “millions of units” of affordable and low-income housing, thus creating new jobs and combating the country’s housing crisis.

When it came to questions of workers’ rights, Sanders stood by his long-held policy that the federal minimum wage should be $15 an hour, adding that in many places that’s just enough to get by. He went on to say that he wants workers at large companies to have a bigger say in how their companies are run and mentioned his proposal that would have large companies set aside 45% of their board of directors seats for company employees.

“What I want to see happen is the empowerment of the workers,” he said.

Sanders had a large group of supporters in the audience Thursday afternoon, many of whom had traveled from across New Hampshire and Vermont.

“I’m already decided,” said Bill Brink, a musician from Perkinsville who expressed enthusiastic support for Sanders on issues of wealth, health care and the environment. It was also the atmosphere of the event that drew Brink in. “This is just such a great environment, so accepting and inclusive.”

Liz Blum, an occupational therapist from Norwich who attended the event Thursday, is also a longtime Sanders fan and has supported him since 1981. It’s Sanders’ stance on climate change, foreign policy, and health care that keeps her support alive, as well as his persona.

“He is consistent and sincere and really believes what he’s saying,” said Blum, a Progressive.

Others, like Dave Rashaw of Claremont, were still on the fence. Rashaw said Sanders’ idea of eliminating college debt speaks to him because his son is still paying off that debt, despite being years out of college. However, he wishes the senator had gone into a little more depth Thursday on the drug crisis.

“I wish there had been a little bit more substance” on that topic, Rashaw said.

Anna Merriman can be reached at or 603-727-3216

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