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US Postal Service changes coming at the wrong time

It’s safe to say the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin fall solidly in the category of rural America. For this region, a strong U.S. Postal Service is a vital necessity, beyond just getting subscriptions and bills, much less absentee ballots.

So reports of cutbacks in the USPS — almost 700 mail processing machines removed, overtime reduced, limits placed on late delivery trips — that in turn have raised complaints about delivery delays are cause for concern.

Living far from urban centers and with a population that skews older, many residents rely on the mail for medications. The U.P. has a high number of veterans as well, whose prescriptions from the Department of Veterans Affairs are sent through the U.S. Postal Service.

The VA last week disputed any significant delays in getting medications delivered. But Disabled American Veterans National Commander Stephen “Butch” Whitehead said in a statement Aug. 17 that the VA has acknowledged about one-quarter of the millions of veterans prescriptions sent by USPS this year have experienced delays.

“VA has now confirmed to us that USPS, which is responsible for delivering about 90% of all VA mail-order prescriptions, has indeed been delayed in delivering these critical medications by an average of almost 25% over the past year, with many locations experiencing much more significant delays,” Whitehead said. “To help mitigate these postal delays, VA has been forced to switch to alternative delivery services in a number of areas across the country and is taking other actions to expedite processing and delivery of prescriptions.”

But with those other delivery services, in rural areas the U.S. Postal Service often carries packages and shipments the “last mile” or more to get them to doorstep or mailbox, said Lynn Pallas-Barber, the assistant clerk craft director for the American Postal Workers Union and a resident of Kingsford.

In short, if this region can’t rely on the U.S. Postal Service, it doesn’t have many other options.

So this is more than just having confidence absentee ballots will be received and mailed back in time to be counted. The U.S. Postal Service plays a much wider role here in the Upper Peninsula.

This is a matter that should go beyond political posturing.

New Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testified Friday in the Senate that his “No. 1 priority” is to ensure election mail arrives on time. But the new postal leader said he would not restore cuts already made to mailboxes and sorting equipment. He could not provide senators with a plan for handling the ballot crush for the election. DeJoy is set to return today to testify before the House Oversight Committee.

The USPS for years has struggled for funding, losing billions of dollars annually. Part of that is due to declining mail use, as people turn online for functions that might have required buying stamps. The USPS also was required under a 2006 law to finance billions in future retirement benefits, in advance.

The region already has seen postal service downsizing in recent years, with some post offices closing and shifts to regional processing centers, which sent what was handled in Kingsford to Green Bay.

The USPS, for now, is almost completely revenue-driven, receiving no tax dollars for operations. Like everything else at this time, it has taken a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic.

As an essential public service, to expect USPS to provide what it does without assistance is unrealistic, especially now. While the USPS does need a plan for getting financially back on track, now is not the time for cuts.

“It’s the United States Postal Service,” Pallas-Barber noted, “not the United States Postal Business.”

The House on Saturday approved legislation that would reverse the recent USPS changes and send $25 billion to shore up the agency ahead of the November election. But that bill faces slim prospects in the GOP-controlled Senate, and the White House says President Donald Trump — who has openly stated he opposes the funding because he doesn’t want more mail-in voting — would veto the measure if it reaches his desk.

Some Republicans lawmakers contend the situation has been overblown and no emergency funding is needed right now. Others say it should come in a broader bill; reports are Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants $10 billion for postal rescue in the next COVID-19 relief package, something the White House has signaled it might accept.

Whatever way the assistance comes, the U.S. Postal Service definitely needs it — and now, Pallas-Barber said.

“It’s a dire situation,” she said. “It is imperative Congress act on the funding.”

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