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Election debates: District 10B candidates wrangle over health care

Moderator Ray Gildow (left) and candidates for District 10B -- DFL challenger Phil Yetzer of Fairfield Township and State Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin -- participate in a televised debate Friday, Oct. 5, at the Lakeland PBS studio in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Clock's ticking down to Election Day. With five weeks left before the big vote on Nov. 6, candidates are hashing out their differences in a series of televised debates.

Vying for the Minnesota House of Representatives, District 10B candidates talked health care, green energy, protecting the elderly and more during a televised debate, Friday, Oct. 5, on Lakeland PBS.

Incumbent Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin and DFL challenger Phil Yetzer fielded questions from a panel of local media figures, including Dennis Weimann of Lakeland PBS, Heidi Holton of KAXE-Northern Community Radio and Gabriel Lagarde of the Brainerd Dispatch.

A beef cattle farmer, Lueck, 68, is seeking his third term in office. He previously said he looks to continue building economic opportunities for the district. This goal, Lueck said, could be accomplished through reduced health care costs and a rational health insurance system, tax and unwarranted regulation reduction, improved education opportunities and the completion of local projects, including the Cuyuna Mountain Bike Trail System and the National Loon Center project in Crosslake.

Yetzer, 52, draws upon experiences as a self-employed contractor, restaurant owner and real estate agent/broker. He also features experience in the public sector as a Fairfield Township supervisor and the Emily Fire Department secretary. Yetzer signaled he will push for expanded and more efficient health care coverage, reduce higher education costs and facilitate better economic opportunities in the district.

The Minnesota House District 10B covers the entirety of Aitkin County and a large swath of northern, eastern and southern Crow Wing County.

Local economies

Right in the name—the Brainerd lakes area—lies a preeminent concern of local representatives tasked to push legislation protecting water-based environments while also fostering growth for industries depending on these natural resources.

With respect to these issues, Yetzer said he would keep tabs and consult with area lake associations, cities and townships, local agencies and organizations to craft policy best addressing the environmental concerns of the area.

Both candidates pointed to invasive species—such as zebra mussels—that must be combated through concerted, funded efforts by the state. Water-based tourism, which along with other prominent forms of tourism such as walking and biking trails, depends on clean, healthy environments.

Yetzer noted tick-borne illnesses and awareness of these diseases would be a point of focus for him.

On the other hand, Lueck said walleye fisheries in Mille Lacs Lake pose as a significant problem—pointing to struggles over the co-management of the lake by tribal and state agencies, with finding a good balance for the health of the lake while sustaining struggling businesses on the shoreline.

Health care

One prime issue going into the 2018 midterms—voters and politicians across the political spectrum have expressed dissatisfaction with the current state of health care in the United States. With this in mind, Lueck and Yetzer were asked to address how they would tackle the issue in the state Legislature.

"Over the last seven or eight years the federal government came in and really wrecked a very good system," Lueck said. "Minnesota was the apple in the eye of the rest of the states in terms of how we dealt with health insurance."

Lueck pointed to recently released statistics that point out rate reductions across the state—between 7 to 27 percent—for individual market insurance plans in 2019. While he spoke of counteracting and reforming detrimental overreaches of federal and state government, Lueck also cautioned health care is a sensitive issue and the future well-being of Minnesotans has to be carefully considered before each change.

"As a self-employed person, I'm very familiar with the individual market and its shortcomings," said Yetzer, who characterized repealing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) as a kind of "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" situation in which protections for pre-existing conditions and the ability for children to keep their parent's coverage until age 26 could be threatened.

Yetzer said he would favor opening up MinnesotaCare across the state as an option for people to buy into for their health care coverage needs.

For his part, Lueck said federal stipulations protecting coverages for pre-existing conditions were welcome improvements, though some unnecessary hikes in cost were not.

Yetzer took aim at what he deemed a failure of the state government to hold pharmaceutical companies to a fair standard in terms of prescription costs, noting that is an issue he'd advocate for in St. Paul.

"Under other leadership, we have decided to give immunity from class action lawsuits to drug manufacturers," Yetzer said. "We've barred the state government from negotiating the drug prices on behalf of the people."

Lueck said mental health coverage and facilities have to be improved across the state—otherwise, he said, there are social issues with people housed not in proper facilities, but in emergency rooms and jails.

Regulations are necessary in the health care and insurance markets, Yetzer said, whether that's to mandate similar prices for procedures and care from county to county, or to ensure transparency in the insurance industry by requiring them to justify rate hikes.

Lueck echoed this sentiment somewhat by saying he would look to even the scales between Greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities metro—a price and competition gap, he noted, causing Crow Wing County and Aitkin County residents to have 18 or 24 options for health care plans while metro residents can choose between 50 to 70 plans.

Gun control

When it came to gun violence, both candidates agreed limiting the Second Amendment too much is not in the public's interest and maintaining its viability is important.

Lueck said he isn't in favor of increased gun regulation—noting, he hasn't seen smart legislation, like assault weapons bans, which he agreed with—when real tangible improvements can be made with increased funding for education, safety features in offices and schools and tighter emergency response times.

"We have to think of things in security that way, building it right," Lueck said.

In addition, Lueck noted mental health care is tied in—addressing the needs of vulnerable individuals before they act out their illnesses with violence.

"The Second Amendment is there to protect the First Amendment," Yetzer said, describing his position on the subject.

He noted selling guns to juveniles or plastic 3D-printed guns should not fall under these protections and pose a threat, particularly for school students. Active shooter training for citizens is also a viable and necessary step forward, he said.

The elderly

With aging populations across the state—Aitkin County sports the oldest population and Crow Wing County is not far behind—and issues of nursing home abuse coming to the forefront, the welfare, health care and housing needs of older residents was posed to the candidates.

Yetzer said there needs to be enforcement of the conditions nursing homes agreed to—in terms of care, caretakers and medications—as well as the prosecution of people who abuse the elderly.

In terms of well-being, both candidates would be in favor of pushing for an "aging in place" arrangement, or home visits to care for the elderly and keep them in their happiest environments.

Yetzer also noted student-elderly partnership programs would benefit all involved. Lueck said he would be in favor of and has worked to increase pay for caretakers to improve care and incorporate more resources.

Green energy

Both candidates said they favor renewable energy to facilitate new avenues for energy production and jobs, as well as environmental protection.

Lueck said he would take a full portfolio approach and not rule out energy sources, whether they're green or fossil-based.

Yetzer, angling more for an emphasis on renewables over fossil fuels, said fossil fuels have been so highly subsidized for so long, it's unlikely renewable forms of energy will ever see that support from the government.

For thinly populated regions like District 10B, geothermal could be very effective to meet the needs of widely spaced rural residents, said Yetzer, who said solar energy looks to be an increasingly affordable and viable replacement for fossil fuels.

Nuclear energy is particularly promising, Lueck said, as an energy source with nearly zero carbon emissions and the ability to power millions of homes. However, he said, it shouldn't be the state's position to tax poorer people for these purposes in the outstate areas who may not be able to benefit.

"Sometimes we get a little too ambitious taxing someone on a fixed income to subsidize something they could have gotten through a federal grant," Lueck said. "We just got to be cautious about that."

Yetzer noted many residents are already on fuel assistance, which he characterized as another subsidy for the fossil fuel industry.

Opioid epidemic

Both candidates said they would push at the state and federal level for pharmaceutical companies—implicated in the opioid crisis by willfully ignoring or facilitating predatory prescriptions for profit—to help pay for treatment and preventative initiatives as compensation.

Yetzer said he would be in favor of "penny a pill" legislation that died in the last session—legislation that looked to tax every pill with a penny to go directly to combat the opioid epidemic.

Lueck said he agreed these companies should be held accountable, going so far as to say he'd expand that rationale to the biggest drug issue in Aitkin and Crow Wing counties—methamphetamine, which is no longer popping up in meth labs across the area, Lueck noted, but coming in even cheaper from Mexico.

Highway 169

Answering a question sent in by a constituent, both candidates said they would like to see substantial changes to HIghway 169 by Garrison on Mille Lacs Lake—a dangerous piece of roadway, Yetzer noted, and one harming the local lake environment, Lueck said.

Yetzer said—from the perspective of a real estate agent—he'd like to see a shift of the roadway and reconstruction that frees up the lake, reduces dangerous traffic around a swampy area, and improves prospects for local business.

Lueck agreed, noting he would favor putting a freeway from Onamia in that area, although changes of a similar magnitude look to be in the early stages at best and tangible results are slated for down the road.

Omnibus bills and log-jam sessions

Criticism has been leveled at the Minnesota state Legislature during the last two sessions by politicos on both sides of the aisle. Significantly, for pushing omnibus bills—enormous documents dealing with a host of issues lawmakers often received just minutes before the vote. As a member of the Minnesota House during these sessions, Lueck took issue with that characterization, describing it as a misconception lawmakers are waiting until the very end when, in reality, they're combing over a roughly $45-55 billion budget over the course of five months. Sometimes, with last-minute economic forecasts, there are changes at the end.

"We do months and months of hearing in great detail," Lueck said. "But you can't make the final decision before you have all the facts on the table and that takes months, there's nothing you can do about it."

Yetzer took issue—acknowledging sometimes it's difficult to pass legislation without dealing in large, multi-topic bills—especially the budget—but "sometimes the politics gets in the way of the policy.".

By pushing some crucial items off until the end of the session, Yetzer said, politicians have gamed the situation and tried to advance their agendas, whether that's to slip legislation in along more bipartisan items or to score political points for the coming election.

"We need more people down there cooperating for the five months so that when it comes up to the end of the situation, there's agreement," Yetzer said. "I think the state has shown we're not very good at bipartisanship and we've got a lot to work on in that area."

Lueck challenged that assertion, noting the vast majority legislation the governor signs and most of his own bills have garnered bipartisan support.