Kaine tours advancing machining labs in schools, attends health care discussion

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine visited Danville on Monday, touring career and technical program labs at Danville Community College and George Washington High School and holding a roundtable discussion at PATHS.

“This is impressive,” Kaine said, marveling at the advanced machining equipment in one of the labs of DCC’s Charles R. Hawkins Engineering and Industrial Technologies Building.

During his tour, Kaine chatted with students and local education officials and told them of his plans to pursue expanding Pell grant eligibility to include short-term career and technical education programs.

Danville School Superintendent Stanley Jones told the Danville Register & Bee before the tour he hoped Kaine would see the importance of technical education.

“I hope he understands the idea of investing in career and technical programs,” Jones said. “It [the tour] will give him a chance to see how it works in our community.”

Just before he began his tour, Kaine told school officials in the building’s foyer that his visit is a chance to find out the region’s main goals and address them in legislation as Congress re-writes the federal Higher Education Act, which is done about every 10 years.

“All of these are opportunities to put in priorities for workforce training,” Kaine said. “I can put in sections that advance the priorities you care about.”

Troy Simpson, director of advanced manufacturing at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, led Kaine and local education officials on the tour of DCC’s advanced manufacturing facilities. It included a visit to the computer numerical control room where students worked on a milling project.

“It’s fantastic for him to take the opportunity to come out and learn about what we’re doing,” Simpson told the Register & Bee during the tour.

Pointing to Kaine’s plans to expand Pell grant opportunities for technical education programs, Simpson said the skills gap must be addressed.

“We’re seeing a huge skills gap in these career and technical trades,” Kaine said after the DCC tour.

That is one reason why raising the profile of community colleges and technical programs is so important, he said.

“I’m trying to make sure we appropriately recognize the way education is today,” Kaine said.

Kaine then headed to the high school, where precision machining instructor Porchia Russell led a tour of the school’s facility.

A dual-enrollment program allows students to complete half of a two-year training program in high school and then complete their degree in a precision machining program at a community college their first year out of high school.

Before the DCC tour, Halifax County School Superintendent Mark Lineburg said Kaine has been a strong advocate for public schools.

“He understands the challenges we face,” he said.

Public school systems rely mostly on state and local money for capital improvement projects, which chips away at such other budget items as teacher pay, Lineburg said.

“Capital projects kill school systems like us,” he said.

Local school officials would love to see federal money for capital projects.

“It would be used for purchase of equipment,” said Pittsylvania County School Superintendent Mark Jones.

The Pittsylvania Career and Technical Center needs a new roof that would cost $1 million, he said.

Later in the day, Kaine held a Medicare X roundtable discussion with about 15-20 local officials and community leaders at the nonprofit group PATHS, on Main Street.

PATHS, which stands for Piedmont Access to Health Services, works to provide health care to all citizens regardless of their ability to pay.

Introduced by Kaine, a Democrat, and Sen. Michael Bennett, D-Colorado, in October 2017, the Medicare-X Choice Act would establish a public insurance plan offered on the individual and small business health exchanges.

It would direct the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to develop a nonprofit insurance policy funded through premiums paid by those who choose the option, Kaine said. There would be no tax increase as a result of the option, he said.

Medicare X would be aimed at people who have no available health insurance from their employers, and would at first be available in areas where there is a shortage of insurers or higher health care costs because of less competition — including rural areas.

The option would expand to every zip code in the country by 2023 and be added as another option on the Small Business Health Options Program Marketplace by 2024.

It would include higher Medicare reimbursement rates for rural hospitals, and offer lower prices for consumers.

“Its cost would be significantly cheaper than private insurance,” Kaine told officials.

Unlike a single-payer system, which Kaine said he does not support, it would not change the current health-insurance system but would work within it, he said.

It would bring down costs and increase competition, he said.

Kaine said his main concern with a single-payer system is that about 75 to 80 percent of the 120 million Americans who get health insurance through their employers said they are happy with their current plans.

“It would be hard to get people to give up something they like,” he said.

PATHS CEO Kay Crane said the uninsured rate among patients there has dropped below 20 percent since Medicaid expansion in Virginia. However, there are still those who need coverage, she said.

“There’s still a group we need to get in,” Crane said during the roundtable discussion.

John Crane reports for the Danville Register & Bee. Contact him at jcrane@registerbee.com or (434) 791-7987.

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