If Jack Bainbridge couldn’t get his prescriptions through the mail, the 70-year-old Army veteran would have to make a 90-mile round trip to the VA Medical Center in Kansas City.
Instead, the retired union laborer who lives outside of Odessa, Missouri, can walk outside his door, cross the road to his mailbox and be sure that the mail carrier he’s known for years will have already dropped off his blood thinners and other medication.
The U.S. Postal Service, which traces its origins to Benjamin Franklin, remains a lifeline for millions who count on getting medication and other necessities through the mail.
But the independent agency, which depends on postage for its revenue, is facing an unprecedented crisis caused by a combination of forces: a global pandemic that has drastically reduced revenues, a 2006 law that required the USPS to prepay billions for retiree health benefits and a president hostile to bailing it out.
The prospect of a depleted, or even defunct, postal service is unthinkable to Bainbridge.
“Let’s say they cut down on days of service, what happens when you run out of medication and the medication doesn’t show up?” he asked. “That could be the difference between life and death…To have to go somewhere to pick up your scripts, it’s costly and it’s inconvenient.
”Rural Missouri really depends on the Postal Service.”
If Congress does not figure out a solution soon, it could cause even more hardship for populations already battered by COVID-19, including small businesses, seniors and economically disadvantaged communities.
‘VISION VS ILLNESS’
Deborah Arnold, a 72-year-old retired teacher who lives in Lee’s Summit, said she began receiving prescriptions through the mail to cut down on potential exposure to COVID-19.
“Two of them are eye drops that prevent the worsening of my glaucoma and possible blindness, so not going to stop those!“ she said in an email. “Without USPS I’ll be forced to weigh vision vs illness (possibly leading to death). Not a very acceptable choice!”
The Postal Service delivered 1.2 billion prescriptions in 2019, including close to 100 percent of the prescriptions from the VA, according to the American Postal Workers Union.
Bob Ritzinger, an 81-year-old Navy Veteran who lives in Higginsville, Missouri, receives prescriptions from the VA through mail for COPD, high blood pressure, hearing loss and back problems. His wife, Janet Ritzinger, 71, said the couple picks them up from a box at their local post office.
“I can’t imagine us not having a post office here. It just scares the daylights out of me,” she said. “We don’t have to go to the city to get them (the prescriptions). He doesn’t have to pay extra… It’s such a value to a small community.”
“If you don’t care about people picking up their mail, maybe you care about people picking up their medication. It’s only urban areas that have CVS every three blocks,” Cleaver said.
“I can tell you that people are going to die if we shut down the Post Office.”
FINANCIAL STRAIN WORSENED BY PANDEMIC
The Postal Service relies on the sale of postage, not tax funds, for revenue. It has operated at a loss for more than a decade, including a nearly $9 billion deficit last fiscal year. The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the agency’s long-running financial issues.
Cleaver pointed to a 2006 law passed under President George W. Bush that required the agency to prepay retiree health benefits in an effort to shore up its retirement system. The policy has strained the agency’s operating budget.
The House voted to repeal the mandate earlier this year with bipartisan support, but it has stalled in the Senate. Rep. Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican who supported the bill, said it would help stabilize USPS and ensure that 6-day-a-week delivery continues.
The recent stimulus passed by Congress originally included a $13 billion grant to the service. When President Donald Trump objected, the grant became a $10 billion loan.
Trump has long criticized the Postal Service for a shipping contract with Amazon that he regards as too favorable to the online retail giant founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos. Bezos also owns The Washington Post, which has angered Trump with its aggressive coverage.
Cleaver called the loan insufficient in a Friday letter to House leaders and noted that the bipartisan Postal Service Board of Governors has asked for $50 billion in emergency grants and $25 billion in borrowing authority. More than 120 Democrats co-signed Cleaver’s letter.
Postmaster General Megan Brennan outlined the financial crisis last week, saying that sales have plummeted during the pandemic and may never fully recover. Brennan said the pandemic is projected to increase the Postal Service’s net operating loss by more than $22 billion over 18 months, threatening its ability to operate.
Lawmakers of both parties said the next coronavirus relief bill needs to shore up the postal service. The idea faces resistance from some on the right who think private entities, such as FedEx and UPS, can fill the gap.
“The marketplace saw an opportunity to provide better service at a better price long ago,” said Dave Trabert, president of the libertarian-leaning Kansas Policy Institute.
But reliance on private entities could further isolate vulnerable populations. A private entity wouldn’t be obligated to provide service to every address as the Postal Service does.
Before entering politics, Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kansas, worked in economic development on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where many relied on access to a post office box because they did not have a numbered street address. The Postal Service is the only way to affordably conduct business in these remote communities, she said.
“I do think were it not for the post office the economic disparities between urban or rural or suburban communities would get worse,” said Davids’ whose mother, Crystal Herriage, a retired Army drill sergeant, has worked at the postal distribution center in Kansas City, Kansas, for 19 years.
Both Davids and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, noted that the agency is one of the largest employers of military veterans with close to 100,000 on the payroll.
“In order to provide certainty to rural America, Congress must recognize financial assistance is necessary and push back on proposals to privatize the USPS,” Moran said.
The postal service has been an economic lifeline to small retail businesses trying to stay afloat during the pandemic by allowing them to ship their products to customers at a reasonable cost.
Love Garden Sounds, an independent record shop in Lawrence, has shipped 378 packages through the post service from March 17, the last day it was open for walk-in business, through Wednesday.
The packages of records, CDs and T-shirts have represented 85% of the store’s business in the last month, said Kelly Corcoran, the store’s owner.
But even in normal times, the store’s ability to sell items online at a competitive rate depends on the Postal Service. The store offers a flat rate of $5 to ship any quantity of records. He said other shops in downtown Lawrence are also dependent on the service’s low shipping rates.
“If they lost a lifeline to mailing things, I think we would lose retailers,” Corcoran said.
Corcoran said that sending a 2 pound package — roughly the weight of two vinyl records — from Lawrence to Bloomington, Illinois, costs only $3.33 through the Postal Service’s media mail rate, a reduced price that makes it affordable to ship books, music and films. Sending the same package through UPS or FedEX would cost over $10.
“As a citizen it makes me angry to allow a great piece of federal infrastructure to crumble out of neglect. I can’t think of a more popular federal thing,” Corcoran said.
“I understand that some people could complain it’s not perfect, but it’s kind of a miracle that anywhere where you’re at they have to deliver to you and that’s not the case with UPS or FedEx,” Corcoran said, noting that some of his online customers are from rural areas where it would be hard to ship a package through a private vendor.
Heather LeClaire, a Wichita teacher who sells crochet gloves and other items through the mail for additional income, said she provides free shipping for all orders in the continental United States. The Postal Service’s low rate allows her to do that.
“This is something I set up purposely because I started having some physical issues and as much as I love teaching I don’t know how much longer… This is a pretty important side business for me,” she said.
A music teacher at Dodge Literacy Magnet Elementary School, she’s also using the Postal Service to stay connected to students and family during the pandemic by mailing them letters and art.
“Being here landlocked in the middle of the U.S., they have a network to keep us connected that UPS and FedEx do not. And if it were to go away, it’s like losing part of your voice.”
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