White House hopefuls woo seniors at Iowa forum

Elizabeth Warren. (Charles Krupa/AP photo via Courthouse News)

SIOUX CITY, Iowa (CN) – Sen. Elizabeth Warren led a group of four Democratic presidential hopefuls at an Iowa forum that focused on perennial issues that are important to older voters.

Attendees peppered the candidates with questions about Social Security, prescription drugs prices, health care and financial security.

On each of these issues, Warren pointed to her experience as an advocate for families who struggle to stay together and her focus on fighting for underdogs.

I’ve been in this fight a long time,” Warren said, noting her work in the Senate to establish a consumer financial protection bureau that helps protect vulnerable seniors. “We need a government that’s not just on the side of those with armies of lobbyists and lots of money. We need a government that’s on the side of people.”

Warren wants to see the federal government manufacture generic prescription drugs like insulin and blood pressure medication. “I’m all for negotiating drug prices, I’m just trying to put a little more muscle behind that,” she said.

She also proposes strengthening a social safety net by providing more funding to existing programs like Social Security and Medicaid, new programs that expand access to Medicare, and giving flexibility for people to give home care to their sick elders.

It’s not just economic, it’s moral,” Warren said of health care. “We don’t know whose beloved grandchild, whose neighbor, will need help. Medicaid is about our values. We don’t know who it’s going to be, but we’re all going to pitch in money.”

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and author Marianne Williamson rounded out the panel at the AARP forum

Williamson pointed to unequal education, poverty and corporate greed as the roots of most problems faced by the country. She touted ideas to change the funding mechanism of public schools away from a system that relies of property taxes and to protect seniors from the “predatory actions” of pharmaceutical companies. She also said she would promote “economic patriotism” if she becomes president.

We’re all in this together,” Williamson said. “We need a complete rethinking of what the government owes the people of the United States.”

O’Rourke focused his comments on his “Medicare for America” plan as a balm for mental health, overcrowded prisons and stability in the lives of Americans.

Noting that some convicts he spoke to in his home county in Texas got arrested on purpose to receive mental health care, O’Rourke called county jails the largest health care facility in many cities. “We remove that kind of uncertainty and cruelty by guaranteeing mental health coverage,” he said.

O’Rourke frequently referred to prison issues and pledged to decriminalize marijuana, particularly as a way to help sick people who don’t want to use opioids to treat their maladies.

Let’s not wait for a state-by-state decision,” he said. “I’ll end that prohibition forever.”

Yang, a start-up entrepreneur, spoke of “uniquely American problems” and how to rewrite the rules of our economy and the health care system to get better deals on drug prices.

We don’t feel like owners anymore, it’s like we’re passengers on a ship,” he said, noting that companies now have little incentive to worry about the financial interests of customers. “[Pharmaceutical] companies only know dollars-and-cents. We have to hit them where it hurts.”

Yang also reassured the audience that his proposed “Freedom Dividend” would not replace Social Security retirement benefits. “We need to issue a dividend to ourselves,” he said.

Under his proposal, each American would receive $12,000 a year in universal basic income. He argued that while raising the minimum wage would not benefit all Americans – like the retired and those staying at home with children or sick relatives – universal income could ease the fiscal issue of every American.

Although the GDP and stock prices are at record highs, Yang said the rules of the current U.S. economy are not focused on allowing people to succeed. He noted rates of suicide, drug dependence and other mental health problems are on the rise.

We need to focus on our life economy. We can’t set up a race we’re all going to lose.”

Sponsored by AARP, the nation’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering people 50 and older, the event was moderated by Kathie Obradovich of the Des Moines Register and O. Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa News.

Around 200 AARP members made up the invitation-only audience.