ANCHORAGE - Four secretaries in the Obama Cabinet had their eyes opened to unique Alaska problems in a trip to rural communities, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich said Thursday.
"They got a good sense of the cost of doing business in rural Alaska and also the challenges they face in rural Alaska," the freshman Democrat said at a news conference.
The Cabinet members - Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan - on Wednesday visited Alaska as part of the administration's "Rural Tour." Begich acted as guide in Bethel, a transportation and government hub for southwest villages, and Hooper Bay, a mostly Yu'pik Eskimo village of 1,160 on the Bering Sea about 500 miles west of Anchorage.
Both communities are well off the power grid and the road system. The chance of fog delayed the secretaries' trip by three hours and a mechanical problem with their airplane cost them another hour. Once they reached the communities, they saw firsthand how high transportation costs get in the way of addressing social needs.
In Hooper Bay, they toured a housing project and learned that 50 percent of the cost of the modular units was for shipping. They also were told that the nearest hospital was a $420 plane ride away, and continuing to specialists in Anchorage meant a $1,000 ticket.
"You could feel the secretaries in shock," Begich said. "One leans over to me and says, 'I could fly to Europe for half that."'
He hopes to continue educating policy makers with a similar tour by fellow senators at the end of the month.
Begich said that to date, Alaska has enjoyed the highest per capita benefits in the nation from the stimulus bill - $1,024. At the end of two years, he said, about $1.4 billion will have poured into the state.
He turned aside a question on whether Alaska projects and programs are receiving more scrutiny because of the high profile of former Gov. Sarah Palin.
"Sarah Palin is not part of the equation, so I want you guys to kind of move that off the table," he said. "It's a new day in D.C. Being part of the majority, helping explain what Alaska is about, in a factual way, can make an impact. We are seeing people who are clearly seeing more about what's happening in Alaska."
When Congress returns from its summer recess in September, Begich said, the priorities will be health care, energy, climate change and appropriations.
His colleague across the aisle, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, conducted a health care town meeting Thursday in Fairbanks. Begich plans his own there Sept. 26.
The average family in Alaska pays a hidden tax of $1,900 per year to cover costs of the uninsured, he said.
"We need to deal with this," Begich said.
He's not satisfied with certain provisions in the bills, he said, but critics losing on the facts are injecting fear into the debate.
"The facts are, if we don't get a handle on health care costs, and bend that health care cost curve as well as resolve this issue, the small business community will have huge negative impact over time. A third of our economy will be consumed by health care costs," he said.
Begich said the focus should be on goals: letting people with insurance keep what they have when they change jobs, letting people keep their current doctors, getting rid of denials for pre-existing medical conditions, getting rid of caps on insurance payments and making sure people do not have exorbitant out-of-pocket expenses.