Warren was greeted with cheers at Saturday's packed town hall meeting at BCC.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The most pressing issue before U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren right now is the proposed federal health care bill.
And that's what she spent most of her time discussing with more than 800 people who attended her town hall at Berkshire Community College on Saturday.
The Democrat has been holding town hall meetings throughout the state, using most of the time to answer questions posed by the audience. She opened with remarks about the health care bill, and fielded numerous questions related to it.
"I think health care shows us what is going on in Washington right now and what is going on in this country right now. The Republicans have on the table a plan and they describe it as a health care plan. I actually want to be blunt about it. It is not a health care plan. It is a tax cut," Warren said. "The heart and soul of what their bill entails is tax cuts, not for most of us but tax cuts for a handful of millionaires and billionaires."
Warren expects to be back in Washington in "another 48 hours" to debate health care. She rejects the Republican bill that would repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a new plan. Warren said the plan would cut costs for the wealthy, paid for by the middle class. Those with disabilities, people over the age of 50, and people with pre-existing conditions would carry the cost burden, she said.
"This is us. These are our neighbors. These are our families. And the proposal from the Republicans is just cut, just break the back of the program. Cut, cut, cut, and why? Because it is too generous? No. Because it is not working? No. But cut because that is the only way they can produce tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires," Warren said. "If this isn't a moment to stand up and fight back, then I don't know when it comes."
She particularly defended Medicare and Medicaid, and called for expansion of those programs. Warren said two-thirds of people in nursing homes, people with disabilities, and people with children with complex medical needs all rely on Medicaid.
"We need to talk about how to expand access. Medicare has worked so well for people over 65 and I think our conversation should be how to expand Medicare for more and more Americans. Ultimately, as Democrats, we believe that health care is a human right and our job in Washington should be to figure out how to expand coverage and drive down costs," Warren said.
Warren said the Affordable Care Act "wasn't perfect" but can be fixed. She filed bills with Vermont's U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders to import prescription drugs from Canada and a bill to get Medicaid to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies to drive down the costs.
"What we are looking for on our side is more coverage at a lower cost. We have got to get the cost down. We've got to get it down for families. We've got to get it down for the government. We need to bring down the cost of health care," Warren said.
Warren said she isn't alone in rejecting the Republican plan. She said people throughout the country have looked at what the bill actually means, the number of people who would lose insurance, what will happen to the cost of plans, and what will happen to people with pre-existing conditions, and have opposed it. She said it is the only bill since 2008 that is more unpopular across the country than the bank bailout.
"It is not just unpopular in places like Massachusetts, where we made a commitment in 2006 saying we really believe in trying to get everyone covered and we understand the urgency of starting to bring down the costs. It is not just in California or Oregon where it is unpopular. The best analysis shows that repeal of the Affordable Care Act and replace it with the Republican bill is under water, more people dislike it than like it, in all 50 states and the District of Columbia," Warren said.
One woman from the audience asked what she could do to help. Warren told the crowd to get involved with political groups and organize behind issues, where voices can be heard louder. Secondly, she told people to talk about it to everyone they know, particularly those who live in states with Republican senators.
"We need to defend the Affordable Care Act and that's what we are doing in Washington right now. We need to defend health care for millions of Americans. We need to defend access to Medicaid and private insurance to keep costs down, that's part one. Part two is we need to make our current health care system better. We need to do that by reducing costs," Warren said.
But health care wasn't the only topic discussed during the hour and a half session. A young man told the senator that he was worried about going to college because of the costs and student debt. Warren said she's filed a bill to refinance student loans to lower interest costs. She said she wants to rework the system so that the federal government isn't profiting off student loans.
"Seventy percent of young people who graduate from state universities have to borrow money to get through. The federal government is making a profit off the backs of our students," Warren said. "After you count the bad debts, the administrative costs, we're on target right now to make tens of billions of dollars in profit from young people who have to borrow money to go to school. That is morally reprehensible."
The debt burdens that students are taking on are having consequences on the economy, she said. She said more and more younger Americans are not purchasing homes or newer vehicles because of their debt.
Another man asked about the United State's stance on Syria. Warren said there needs to be a more in-depth plan for what to do after driving ISIS out and there needs to be a broader conversation about what tools are available other than military force.
"The United States needs a cohesive strategy," she said.
Another asked about the allegations that Russia launched a cyber attack to influence the outcome of the election. Warren said right now officials are in the process of collecting all of the facts, but those in the intelligence community are "quite confident" that the Russians did so. President Donald Trump is making statements to move on from it, she said, but it is a "direct danger to the United States" that another country could do that and wants there to be consequences for doing so.
She handled an array of issues from a welcoming crowd. So many people showed up that college officials had to turn people away after filling not only the Boland Theater but also an overflow room. Warren was greeted by cheers and eruptions of support throughout the event.
She got a roaring cheer when she said she's planning to run for re-election in 2018.
State Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, and Paul Mark, D-Peru, opened the event with recollections of state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, who died last month. They told stories of interactions they had with her and mourned her death. Mayor Linda Tyer followed the pair to introduce the senator, rallying the audience, and specifically citing the "Four Freedoms," as outlined by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
"Sen. Warren is on our side and today is our chance to show her we are with her," Tyer said, which led to loud cheers throughout the auditorium.
State Sen. Adam Hinds moderated the question-and-answer session, though little moderation was needed. Those who wanted to speak were given numbers and Hinds pulled from a hat to determine who got to speak and when.
Afterward, the senator stayed to have her picture taken with a long line of supporters.
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