Former presidential candidate and Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is coming to the coal country of southern West Virginia for a Town Hall meeting about the needs of rural Americans.
Sanders will speak Sunday afternoon at Mount View High School in the city of Welch. The event is being hosted by MSNBC, which plans to broadcast it later, calling it "an unscripted, no-holds-barred conversation" with people from McDowell County about the issues facing them and communities like theirs.
"I think for too long the federal government has ignored the needs of rural America," Sanders told The Associated Press on Friday. "All over this country: What we're seeing right now in rural America is unemployment rates that are too high, health care that's inadequate, infrastructure that's in deep trouble. ... And in addition to all of that is the opioid crisis, which exists all over, in my state and West Virginia, which has to be dealt with as well."
Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton in last year's Democratic presidential primary, though he easily won in West Virginia with nearly 124,000 votes. Republican candidate Donald Trump had just a few more than 156,000 votes. Trump later won in the general election against Clinton with 69 percent of West Virginia's vote, promising to help bring back its slumping coal mining industry.
"What we are seeing in West Virginia, in Vermont, in rural America, is a decline in living standards for rural America," Sanders said. "I think it's important that people in rural America begin to have a voice to talk about the reality of their lives and to talk about what they think their communities need to go forward."
He believes obstacles include the lack of quality broadband and cellphone service, and roads and bridges in disrepair. Sanders expects to visit other areas around the country to try to put rural needs high on Congress' agenda, he said.
West Virginia and other states also could be hurt if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act, which extended health care coverage to many people and helps support rural hospitals, Sanders said. "Unless there is a substitute plan that is as good or better, I fear very much that many, many people in West Virginia will A, lose the health insurance they have recently gotten, or B, if they're on Medicaid, the kind of services they can receive on Medicaid will be diminished."
House Republicans have drafted a substitute health care law. West Virginia's U.S. senators, Republican Shelley Moore Capito and Democrat Joe Manchin, have expressed concerns about the possible change.
Sanders' scheduled February appearance at the West Virginia National Guard armory in Welch was canceled. The Guard cited a U.S. Defense Department policy prohibiting the use for political and election events.