Kodiak residents on Saturday addressed U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, in a town hall meeting, with most questions focused on healthcare and fisheries.
In opening comments, Sullivan said his No. 1 priority is growing the U.S. economy.
“When I look at some of the national challenges that we have as a country, almost everything can be addressed and hopefully solved, in my view, with a strong economy,” he said.
He also pointed to a strong national defense and “people who fall through the cracks” as main areas of focus.
Sullivan touted Alaska’s role in national security, including missile defense systems based at Fort Greely and testing on Kodiak Island from the Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska.
“We are the cornerstone of missile defense, which is only going to be more important as North Korea has the increasing ability to shoot not just an intercontinental ballistic missile, but unfortunately soon — I think this is going to happen and it’s a scary proposition — intercontinental ballistic nuclear missile that can reach not only Alaska, but the Lower 48,” he said.
“The system that would actually shoot down that missile is based almost exclusively in our state, and that’s really important.”
He touted the Pro bono Work to Empower and Represent Act, or POWER Act, a bill he sponsored that would provide legal aide to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
“If you’re a rapist and you’re accused of rape, you get a Sixth Amendment right to counsel. That’s your right under the Constitution. If you’re the victim, you get nothing in terms of an attorney. Well, I think that’s wrong,” he said.
“Studies show that … the best way to break the cycle of violence that many survivors of domestic violence are trapped in, is to get them a lawyer,” he continued.
Sullivan even addressed his take on the new administration, calling President Donald Trump and his administration “very unorthodox.”
“On the policy side, I’ve been trying to be supportive when I think it helps the state and the country and, on a lot of the issues, I do think their policies have,” he said. “But, what I don’t support and won’t defend is behavior I disagree with, so I’m not a big fan of the tweeting – I wish the president would stop it – or the insults. I try to be respectful of everybody I deal with.”
Sullivan said healthcare has been a top concern for citizens across the state.
He said he has heard from “well over 1,000” constituents with healthcare concerns.
“In the last six months, I’ve probably spent 70 percent of my time on healthcare even though I’m not on any of the committees that deal with it,” he said.
Indeed, most of the Kodiak audience’s questions centered on healthcare.
“I have step children and I have biological children. I have six total, and at one time we had five in the home and healthcare was just an unbelievably dominant issue in our house,” said one resident who asked Sullivan to ensure that healthcare policy is focused on patient care rather than profit.
Another resident questioned why the U.S. falls behind other countries in offering healthcare to its citizens.
Healthcare has “become a moral issue for me, because when we bring in $300 million here for our military defense but we can’t offer affordable healthcare for people, something is wrong. I just think our priorities are wrong and, with all due respect, if the people who were deciding these things had to pay their own premiums, I think maybe things would be done a lot faster,” she said.
One Kodiak man said he needs medical care but is unable to afford premiums on health insurance plans offered in the ACA marketplace, and has been unable to access his benefits under the complicated VA system.
“The healthcare issue is why I’m here. I’m devastated by it. I have a wife I can’t buy healthcare for. She hasn’t been to the doctor. We’ve broke bones, both of us, and haven’t gone to the doctor. That’s the way this is. It’s the real deal, people,” he said.
“I want to buy healthcare. I haven’t been to a doctor for six years. I come from a family of big-time colon cancer, all kinds of things, I need to see a doctor. I’m a veteran. It’s embarrassing that I even have to come here and talk about it.”
Sullivan said he hopes to “repeal and repair” rather than “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare.
“I don’t say replace because some of the Affordable Care Act I think we should keep, but a lot of it I think has been a very big challenge for Alaska,” he said.
He supports keeping the Medicaid expansion that was a part of the ACA.
“I don’t think people who were a part of that expanded population should have a rug pulled out from under them,” he said.
He would also like to keep provisions requiring coverage of people with preexisting conditions, but did not say how that can be done without an individual mandate.
Proposals from the House would place people with preexisting conditions into a separate, subsidized pool for coverage. The Senate, however, is drafting its own healthcare bill, he said.
He differed with a constituent who expressed support for a single-payer healthcare system, saying it would be too costly.
“I don’t trust the federal government to put together a system that would be affordable or helpful. So, I’ve been in a lot of meetings, there’s been a lot of people calling for single payer. I just respectfully disagree on whether or not that would be the best thing for Alaska or the country,” he said.
Sullivan said more should be done separately to lower healthcare costs, including prescription drug costs.
He also supports offering health insurance across state lines and tort and medical malpractice reform.
Sullivan said he hopes to hold hearings in Alaska this summer on reauthorization of the Magnusen-Stevens Act, possibly in Kodiak, and called for full funding of fisheries-related science through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other organizations.
Sullivan promoted the Young Fishermen’s Development Act, which would create a program to support young entrants to the commercial fishing industry.
He called for regulations that do not “crush business” and highlighted the need for open seafood markets.
Residents asked that Sullivan protect salmon habitats from mining, particularly Bristol Bay.
In explaining his support for the overturn of an Environmental Protection Agency preemptive veto that blocked federal permits for Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay watershed, Sullivan said he believes the EPA had overreached their authority.
However, he added that the mining project will have to meet standards required under state and federal permitting processes.
Sullivan said he does not “believe in trading one resource for another.”
Snoderly can be reached at (907) 512-2624. Follow her on Twitter, @KDMjoann