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Sanders’s West Virginia town hall focuses on healthcare

Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSanders thanks Iowa voters for giving momentum to progressive agenda Live coverage: Gillum clashes with DeSantis in Florida debate Miami Herald endorses Gillum for governor MORE (I-Vt.) held a town hall-style meeting in West Virginia Sunday to address critical issues affecting the state. The event was moderated and taped by MSNBC and will air Monday night at 8 p.m.

MSNBC host Chris Hayes, Sanders and more than a dozen panelists touched on a range of topics affecting McDowell County and other rural U.S. communities, including the opioid epidemic, jobs and healthcare. 

During the event, Hayes asked whether the state’s opioid crisis has affected anyone in the estimated 300-person crowd.

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“When I saw so many hands went up for people who had lost loved ones as a result of the opiate crisis, that is just chilling. That is just incredible,” Sanders said later, telling the Bluefield Daily Telegraph that the response to that question was the most powerful moment of the day for him.

“This is an epidemic and … not just in West Virginia. It exists in Vermont. And we have got to get a handle on it in a number of ways. We need more treatment,” he added.

McDowell County and three other West Virginia counties had the highest numbers of fatal pain pill overdoses in the U.S., the West Virginia Gazette-Mail reported.

The West-Virginia based paper recently broke the story that drug firms targeted poor, rural West Virginian communities and have poured 760 million painkillers into the area for distribution. Their shipping records show the companies disproportionately targeted rural communities for pain pill shipments, which played a large role in the state’s high numbers of drug-related deaths. 

“I’ve got to tell you, I’m not a great fan of the pharmaceutical industry in general. For them to make to make billions in profits by getting young people addicted and ruining their lives...” Sanders said. “We have to start holding them accountable.”

Healthcare issues dominated the discussion, as Sanders repeatedly emphasized the consequences for West Virginians if ObamaCare is repealed and replaced by the GOP healthcare proposal that was released last week.

“If ObamaCare is replaced, we are looking at a hundred thousand who got Medicaid expansion and will lose that,” Sanders told the gathered crowd.

He said the GOP bills “should be seen as a huge tax break for the wealthiest people in America.”

Sanders originally visited the county during his bid to be the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, and he beat his rival Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders thanks Iowa voters for giving momentum to progressive agenda Manchin wrestles with progressive backlash in West Virginia Arizona newspaper backs Democrat in dead heat Senate race MORE in all 55 counties in the state in the primary.

But President Trump won both McDowell County and West Virginia entirely in November.

Sanders and the panel also addressed small coal mining economies and increasing unemployment on Sunday. 

Trump promised to protect West Virginians and bring back coal jobs during his campaign, prompting Hayes to ask whether such jobs would return.

Sanders responded broadly.

“Young people are leaving our small towns because they can’t find jobs, and that is going on all over the country,” he said, though some of the gathered residents expressed doubt that coal jobs would return in light of technology and mechanization upgrades.