"Health care" were the two words on everyone's lips Saturday in a public meeting with U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley.
About 150 people packed a conference room at the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library for a town hall meeting, Merkley's first in Corvallis since his November election victory over incumbent Gordon Smith.
Merkley described his four committee assignments and the challenges he hopes to help solve.
"We are facing one of the most difficult moments we've seen in the economy in our lifetimes," he said.
Fielding questions, he said, "I will support a single-payer plan if we can get it to the floor."
But he said there must be a bill on the table by summer or Congress will get bogged down by other issues.
"We may not get this opportunity for another 20, 30 years," he said.
Merkley said he has signed on to a bill that would quadruple money to health clinics, which are cost-effective. He also supports wellness programs, particularly for youth, which act as preventative care.
Merkley said lack of oversight over companies such as Halliburton was a huge problem, and a questioner asked if he would refuse campaign contributions from such companies. Merkley said the question was too broad.
Dr. Paul Hochfeld of Corvallis drew a parallel between the senator's answer and the power of insurance companies in the healthcare debate. He wanted to know how the political process could be fixed to keep industry from unfairly influencing legislation.
Merkley didn't offer specifics but said the current campaign funding models aren't working to make sure voices are heard equally.
The economy was another topic. Merkley compared stimulus funding to a short-term pain with long-term benefits, much preferable to not doing anything and facing worse problems down the road.
Merkley said after the meeting that he was struck by how many people turned out and the energy of the crowd. Topics raised were mostly the same he's heard elsewhere in the state.
"I think by and large it's the same cross-section of addressing fundamental concerns of healthcare and jobs," he said.
He said he and fellow Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden hope to work to highlight Oregon as a state on the cutting edge of renewable energy technology.