WASHINGTON (KEYC) — Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) addressed her colleagues on the U.S. Senate floor Wednesday, urging them to address the challenges that communities in rural America have been and are facing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Minnesota senator, who is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, touched on challenges relating to mental health, accessibility to health care reliable broadband and the economic impact the coronavirus is having on farmers and agricultural producers.
Klobuchar also introduced the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act to the Senate on Wednesday.
The legislation would invest $100 billion to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities to close the digital divide and connect Americans to ensure they have increased access to education, health care and business opportunities.
“We must take immediate action to provide critical support that rural areas need...areas that may not have easy access to hospitals...may have smaller hospitals. That’s why that issue of funding for state and local governments as long as we make sure that the rural areas are able to share in this funding as well is so important,” Klobuchar said in her remarks.
“The rural hospitals, the equipment...all of this. And that is beyond what we all know already, and that is the food supply change, our nutrition program. We certainly don’t want a situation where you can’t get homegrown American food, just as we have learned with the supply chains of medical equipment you can’t always get the swabs that you need for so many of our testings and the like.
“We want to maintain not just some romantic vision of the past, our rural areas, we want to maintain them for America. It’s for having that food that’s ours and having it made in America so we’re not dependent on foreign food…It’s for having our own energy supply which can be varied and vast…It’s about having our own technology and developing the next new idea and the next new iPhone. We’re not going to be able to do that if we shut out a big swatch of our country. That’s not going to work. We actually want to encourage the development in rural America. That’s what I think we need to do.”
Klobuchar’s full remarks are available below and in the video above.
Mr. President, I rise today to address the impact that the coronavirus pandemic is having on rural America. We know that it affects every area of this country. We have seen in urban areas of our country, people who are in crowded housing, people who work every day in our urban hospitals what this has meant to them. We have seen in the suburban areas with small businesses, with moms trying to figure out how to handle the summer with their kids. But the rural areas, sometimes they don't get as much attention.
You know in your home state of Oklahoma, you understand this. There are a lot of rural areas in our country that have suffered as well. They have suffered not only because of spikes with the virus like we're seeing recently, but also because of the economic implications, an economy, a farm economy that was already in trouble because of the price of commodities, because of world trade barriers, because of weather events, you name it, it has affected rural areas in a big, big way.
According to several recent reports, as of July 14, one-third of all rural counties are now considered red zones, places that in the last week of testing at 100 or more new cases per 100,000 people. Between June 13 and July 12, the number of new cases in rural counties increased by 150%. That is why we must take immediate action to provide critical support that rural areas need, areas that may not have easy access to hospitals, may have smaller hospitals. That's why that issue of funding for state and local governments as long as we make sure that the rural areas are able to share in this funding as well is so important. The rural hospitals, the equipment, all of this. And that is beyond what we all know already, and that is the food supply change, our nutrition program. We certainly don't want a situation where you can't get homegrown American food, just as we have learned with the supply chains of medical equipment you can't always get the swabs that you need for so many of our testings and the like.
So I just want to make clear, people sometimes see rural areas, oh they are all out there doing fine. All these idyllic pictures, I don't think they get the struggles, the fact that rural poverty for kids is often higher than it is in urban areas. And this is before the pandemic. To me the pandemic has put a big magnifying glass on some of these disparities we knew already existed. It's a more senior population in rural areas so you have people trying to keep themselves safe, isolated in seniors' homes or smaller assisted living where they are very, very isolated, even more so than they might be where they have their family nearby that can at least visit them through a window. That's even harder. So all of these -- really, these challenges conspire to make this a topic that we must discuss.
The operation of public hospitals, long-term care facilities, and first responder services during a public health crisis requires a significant mobilization of resources, and this relief package that I am pleased we are debating now, I'd like to see more movement, but at least the negotiations are ongoing, must include the funding for rural area hospitals as well as state and local governments.
Local governments in rural areas are facing both falling revenues and increased emergency expenses. They have a smaller margin that they operate on, threatening their ability to provide essential public services and their ability to continue paying teachers and first responders. The public health crisis is putting incredible pressure on our public health system and many rural hospitals and health systems already have limited I.C.U. beds and resources.
The disproportionately low number of health care providers across rural America has been brought into sharp focus by this crisis. We already knew stories of hospitals that were once delivering babies that lose one doctor, one doctor, OB/GYN, and then they can no longer deliver babies and then the family has to go miles and miles and hours and hours just to have the delivery of a baby in a safe situation. That's why we need to do much. It's the funding. It is a bill that Senator Grassley and I have actually to allow some of these smaller hospitals, this is pre-pandemic, to exist in different circumstances like emergency room circumstances so they don't entirely close down. It is why I have led the reauthorization of the Conrad 30 program which has brought over 15,000 immigrant doctors to fill the gaps.
We also know there are issues of personnel in these hospitals, nurses and doctors. This is a program that allows for immigrant students who have gotten a degree in an American medical school to be able to serve out their residence in America in underserved areas, which means sometimes urban areas that don't have enough personnel but lots of times means rural areas. That's why, in fact, the initial author of this bill was Senator Conrad of North Dakota because of the problem they had. And I continue as I travel through the country in the last year to hear about all of the problems we have in our V.A. Hospitals and the like where they want to have these physicians who are trained in America with degrees in America to allow them to stay and not have to go back to their home country when, in fact, they want to stay in America.
Helping rural hospitals also means ensuring they have vital equipment like masks, gowns, gloves, and medical supplies like ventilators. That's why I've urged the administration to deliver supplies from the strategic national stockpile and to protect consumers' access to medical and hygiene products. It also means delivering additional resources for testing and for contact tracing, like the $75 billion that the House passed in the Heroes Act. And it means expanding telehealth services, which my bill with Senators Casey and Capito, the Access Act would do.
I recently had the experience of my own dad at age 92 with coronavirus. He ended up at age 92 surviving it with just having lost 10 pounds and a very poor appetite but came out of it as strong as he went into it. But I didn’t know that was going to happen, and I will never forget that moment of our family standing outside the window because, of course, we couldn’t go in, standing out there in masks while he’s in his room -- or a room that they’d given him because he got coronavirus, and he is -- and they put the telephone on so that he could hear us on speakerphone. But he could not figure out what was going on. He doesn’t really understand with his disease why we’re wearing the masks and we can’t even hold his hand and you don’t know if that’s the last time you’re going to see your loved one at that moment.
As it turned out, it had a happy ending for him and he's doing fine but not for everyone else who lives in his home. That's why these services where maybe he could see us on a big TV instead of maybe on the little iPhone would make such a big difference, not just to people in his situation who are in a small assisted living within need of services but with people who are there because they wanted to have a living situation where they could hang out with their friends and play bridge and the like.
We're going to have to think of those facilities and the access that we can give, not only with doctors to consult with patients, but also for them to be able to see their families.
This means broadband. That's why I introduced the Accessible, Affordable, and Internet for All Act, comprehensive legislation led by Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. I was honored that he asked me to carry this bill in the Senate. It would invest $100 billion to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in underserved areas. Underserved areas, a lot of times, as he knows, from his home state of South Carolina includes a lot of rural areas, rural farmers, in his case so many African American communities that are underserved by broadband. And it would make a big difference all over the country.
Senator Cramer of North Dakota and I introduced the Keeping Critical Connections Act, which again is another way of focusing on low-income and on rural areas to help our small broadband providers who, in my experience, have tended to really put their money where their mouth is and actually build out in these areas so that people can get high-speed broadband. Our bill now has 34 cosponsors -- half Democrats, half Republicans -- and I keep working to ensure that students in low-income communities are connected. I don't want to hear another story like I heard of the high school student who had to take her biology exam in the liquor parking lot in town because she didn't have high-speed internet access or the doctor can yes see the x-rays at his rural hospitals but if he wants to do work from home, as so many of us are doing in the pandemic, he has to go to the McDonald's parking lot to be able to view these x-rays. Iceland can do this. They have volcanoes. They are covered at times in ash. And they have been able to get high-speed internet to every person in their country, we should be able to do the same.
Farmers -- I spent the morning on a number of Zoom calls with our farmers in Minnesota. Our soybeans and farmers and others. And I have to say that they are in hard times right now, and they're in hard times because, as I said before this pandemic we were having problems. Our food supply chain has been hit from the farmers who grow our food, fuel, and fiber to the workers in the processing plants, of which I have many in my state. I was just in Worthington, Minnesota, which is home to one of the biggest food-processing plants hit hard by the coronavirus. They have put in place some better safety measures and are now operating. The truck drivers and barge operators who deliver products to stores and export terminals and the families who may be struggling to put food on the table due to sudden unemployment.
When many businesses started shutting down in March, commodity futures prices tumbled given the lower demand for food and fuel. At the beginning of the pandemic, dairy producers estimated that milk prices would drop by $2.85 billion in 2020. Cattle ranchers and hog producers saw the value of their livestock drop by 30 to 40 percent and the futures price for corn and soybeans fell 10% to 15% per bushel.
These losses occurred as farmers were still recovering from weather conditions that delayed or prevented harvests last year. Many farmers were barely breaking even as it was and they began this spring planting season behind, and then they confronted the pandemic. In March, we passed the Cares Act. It was not perfect. We all know that. But it provided $23.5 billion in disaster assistance for farmers and livestock producers impacted by the pandemic. The Department of Agriculture began making payments in June and as of yesterday they have processed over $6.5 billion in payments to more than 473,000 producers, but there's still money that's been unspent. That's $14 billion, in addition to funding from the next package. It must reach producers of all sizes. This has been particularly hard in my state waiting for that help.
The House has already taken action to provide additional direct assistance for farmers and dairy and livestock. I met with Representative Collin Peterson who heads up the House Ag committee this weekend when we were both here, both when we were marooned in Washington and we went through the work that he had done. And I'm very hopeful that we can do something similar in our bill here. While farmers and livestock producers need emergency relief, we also must recognize that the pandemic has placed a significant strain on workers and consumers. We cannot slow the spread of the coronavirus when tests can take as long as 12 days to provide results.
A friend back in Minnesota just a week ago or so got a test. He felt sick, didn't want to get his family infected, spent six days in the basement not being able to see his family and it took that long to find the results and then found out he didn't have it. Those stories are just as similar, of course much more fortunate, but similar people who wait when they are sick and they need to know if they are sick. Not everyone has a basement to stay in. So the point of this is, is these delays in testing are very, very difficult on our economy. That's why in May I joined Senator Debbie Stabenow, the ranking member of the Agriculture committee, and my Democratic colleagues on the Senate Agriculture Committee in introducing the Food Supply Protection Act. The bill would provide support for food banks to upgrade their infrastructure to handle additional demand, strengthen food partnerships, prevent food waste, and protect workers through grants -- and here we get to what I was talking about -- for protective equipment, test kits and cleaning supplies. Also last week I joined Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas in introducing the Requiring Assistance to Meat Processors for upgrading their plants, or the Ramp Act that we are doing together.
The closure of meatpacking plants highlighted the need to provide consumers with more choices and farmers with more flexibility when marketing their livestock. Our bill would help small- and medium-sized meatpackers make improvements to their facilities so they can meet the standards necessary for federal inspections. This will allow them to make sales across state lines and increase market opportunities. These two important pieces of legislation -- the Stabenow bill I mentioned and the one that Senator Moran and I just introduced -- should be included in the next relief package.
Another critical component to the rural economy is our nation's biofuel industry. In the first quarter of 2020, biofuel processing plants purchased an estimated 1.3 billion bushels of corn and supported over 350,000 jobs. Many of them are based of course in rural communities. In fact, a lot of our farmers own the plants. In fact, a lot of our local people depend on these plants for one of the major businesses in their small towns. Even before the pandemic, the misuse of small refinery exemptions under the renewable fuel standard by the EPA had led many biofuel plants to shut down.
I will never forget visiting a biodiesel plant in Iowa that had been shut down and there was one worker left. His job was to maintain the plant. He took me on a tour of the empty plant and then pulled out a coat rack that contained the uniforms of the people, his friends, that used to work there, and embroidered on the uniforms were the names of the people, with names like Bob, Joe, Salvador.
A tear goes down his cheek and he said, I kept these uniforms, I keep them pressed on this coat rack because I hope they'll come back and work here. That was before the pandemic. And that is what we've seen because of some policies by this Administration that claimed that they wanted to help the Midwest but instead granted wholesale a bunch of exemptions not just to the refineries -- it's in there for a good reason, to help struggling refineries. But they literally granted those exemptions to Exxon, to Chevron to dozens and dozens and dozens of companies. That is before the pandemic. That is why Senator Grassley and I have taken this on in a big way. These losses -- and this is, again, pre-pandemic -- have resulted in over 100 biofuel processing plants nationwide idling production or closing altogether. It's combined -- pre-pandemic and during the pandemic.
That's why in May I introduced legislation with Senator Grassley to support biofuel producers during the pandemic. Our bill involves reimbursement of -- for their feedstock or commodity purchases through the first quarter of this year. And it's also why I led a letter with 19 senators urging the EPA to deny 52 petitions for waivers that would enable more billion-dollar oil companies to receive small refinery exemptions. The approval of these retroactive exemptions at this moment would only worsen the unprecedented economic challenges facing the biofuels industry.
Competition is good in America. That is why we have the renewable fuels standard because it is a nascent, new fuel and they had to really get into that market in a big way against big oil, that gets many more subsidies than the biofuels do. This is not a time to go backwards and shut down every biofuel plant in America. And that is where this Administration is heading if it keeps up these practices.
There is much more we must do to help our rural community. I would note one of the emerging issues that I heard about a lot in my state is these child care deserts. That is that rural families are seeing unavailable child care. And this is, again, pre-pandemic. It was a big problem. Where you'd have so many people who wanted to work but were unable to get child care to be able to do that work. And that is not just in my state. It's all over the country. And that's why Senator Sullivan and I introduced the Child Care Workforce and Facilities Act, pre-pandemic, which would address the national shortage of affordable, quality child care in these rural areas to help them expand their child care workforces. Right now the economy is slowly but surely starting to reopen. And we know for families that have been at home when the parents are still working, this has become harder and harder for moms and dads to figure out what they're going to do about child care. So this should be a time where we step back and think, okay, how are we going to deal with this, not just with the threat from the pandemic today, but the today after tomorrow. And I mean that as a metaphor for next year. How are we going to make this work for rural areas? And I've gone through everything that we need to do to get there. The health care, making sure that we have health care available in rural areas; broadband, making sure there's something we can do, that that is available; the child care deserts, the ag economy; and I will say that there is a big argument for rural America right now. As we've seen the people are able with the right connections to work from home, and we need new ideas and new start-ups. And it's actually less expensive to start new companies in the rural part of this country where the cost of living is low. We know that there are farmers that want to keep farming their small plot of land in places like South Carolina and in places like Oklahoma and in places like Minnesota.
But if we just allow rampant consolidation in the ag industry and the tech industry, where there is a hearing going on as I speak right now over in the House that maybe a few more people are watching, but the point of is it this -- we have to also take on consolidation during this pandemic and looking at our laws next year and I'm not going to just wait for a bunch of judges to make decisions when they've been going against the antitrust laws now on the Supreme Court level for years. One loss after another. It is so -- so cries out for a change in our antitrust laws. We have adapted these laws over the years.
I’ll end with one story involving that. I was at a small cafe a few years ago in Albert Lea Minnesota and a woman was there with her farmer husband and her brother-in-law, and she turned to me and she said, I just saw you on TV. I go, was it about Russia and elections? The presiding officer and I were doing a lot of work at the time nationally on protecting our elections from foreign interference and I said was that it? And she goes, no that wasn’t it. She said it was on the local station about big. About how things are getting too big and it makes it hard for us. We want to maintain not just some romantic vision of the past, our rural areas, we want to maintain them for America. It’s for having that food that’s ours and having it made in America so we’re not dependent on foreign food. It’s for having our own energy supply which can be varied and vast. It’s about having our own technology and developing the next new idea and the next new iPhone. We’re not going to be able to do that if we shut out a big swatch of our country. That’s not going to work. We actually want to encourage the development in rural America. That’s what I think we need to do. Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.