AFT Votes: Healthcare, retirement dominate Castro forum

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A secure, decent life from generation to generation was the theme of questions put to presidential candidate Julián Castro during a town hall meeting last night with union members and retirees in Las Vegas. It was the ninth candidate town hall with AFT members, and it was livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube.

julian castro at aft townhall

A proud product of public schools and the youngest member of President Obama’s Cabinet, Castro spent most of the town hall conversing with members of the Alliance for Retired Americans about healthcare, not just for themselves but for their children and grandchildren. With AFT President Randi Weingarten serving as moderator, Castro talked about Medicare, the Affordable Care Act and retirement security.

Asked by a retiree about eroded cost-of-living adjustments in Medicare, and about seniors trying to live on $700-$800 a month from Social Security, Castro recalled how his grandmother depended on Social Security. He vowed to strengthen it, making sure the trust fund remains solvent.

When he was asked about a law in Las Vegas that treats the homeless like criminals, Castro said, “I’m not going to criminalize desperation. We should be working to make sure everyone has suitable permanent housing.” He’d end the distinction between physical and mental healthcare, and he’d start with veterans, under a plan to end homelessness by 2028.

A member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees thanked the AFT for allowing other union members to attend the meeting, and asked specifically about diabetes, which affects a growing percentage of Americans. A decade ago, he said, treatment with insulin was expensive but covered by his union. Now the cost has “become a horror” at $3,000 to $5,000 a year. The media regularly explores cases of people who cut back on insulin and died. “That’s shameful,” he said.

Castro said he doesn’t believe the profit motive should determine whether people can get the medicine they need, or forcing them to buy it in Mexico and Canada, where prescriptions may cost a tenth of what they do in the United States. He favors direct negotiation of drug prices between the federal government and drugmakers. He also vowed to close patent loopholes keeping less-costly generic drugs off the market, and to hold pharmaceutical executives accountable if they defraud consumers.

A final question came from a retiree from the Teamsters who had tried to use a health exchange for his grandson but found it so complex and expensive that it turned out to be easier to pay out of pocket. While proud of what President Obama accomplished with the ACA, Castro acknowledged that it’s not perfect. He wants to make Medicare the default health insurance for all Americans, who would automatically be enrolled when they’re born. 

A life of help and helping

Castro said he “connected the dots” from his grandmother, an immigrant at age 7, to himself and his twin Joaquin, a member of the House of Representatives. When they were kids, Castro said, he hated to look at the family’s grocery list because it was so small. Still, his grandmother managed to raise his mother while participating in the Chicano movement of the late ’60s as an activist. Castro’s father was a career teacher, and his wife has been a teacher for 16 years.

It is amazing, he said, that just two generations after his grandmother arrived in Texas, one of her grandsons is serving in Congress and the other is running for president. “That is the American dream,” he said. “That is the American experience.”

Before becoming the U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, Castro was elected to the San Antonio city council at age 26, then mayor, where he dealt with issues like sidewalks. While working on these local issues, he said, “the lightbulb went off because all these things are connected,” from basic services like mobility for the elderly all the way to “the fact that the people hit worst by the effects of climate change are poor people.”  

A path to citizenship

Weingarten observed that Castro understands the role of public services in people’s lives. “Born of a grandmother who was a community activist, who understood what government could do if government worked well,” she said, Castro has zeroed in on the importance of a living wage and the purpose of a public education.

But there’s more, she added, commending Castro for speaking out forcefully to insist that immigrants must be treated as human beings, not as objects of hatred and division. One of Castro’s signature issues is immigration. His detailed plan for comprehensive immigration reform includes restoring rights for “Dreamers,” establishing pathways to citizenship, strengthening labor protections for guest workers, bringing home deported veterans of the U.S. military, and protecting victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.

“We are a nation of immigrants,” Weingarten said. “How many of us have parents, grandparents, who came from another place?” Just as our families were strangers here, she said, so are the newest immigrants. She expressed gratitude to Castro for making his candidacy “a North Star so that everyone can see what America can be.”

Earlier in the day, Castro spoke with political science students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and joined a gun safety forum hosted by the groups Giffords and March for Our Lives. After the AFT Votes town hall, he joined a voter registration rally.

The Oct. 2 town hall was part of the AFT’s 2020 presidential endorsement process, which encourages AFT members to engage directly with candidates about their priorities: public education and community schools, an economy that works for everyone, student debt, healthcare, and workplace safety. Learn how you can tune in to our union’s endorsement process. You can watch previous town halls on the AFT’s YouTube channel.

[Annette Licitra]