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Congressman Greg Walden's Oregon Congressional Connection


Location: Washington, DC

Dear fellow Oregonian:

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. I'm back at it this week, having completed my 355th round trip between Oregon and Washington, D.C. on Monday, then early Tuesday morning was on my way to Pendleton to add to my to-do list in Umatilla County.

When SeaPort Airlines first started selling tickets for their new service from Portland to Pendleton, I snagged a round trip ticket for their first day of flights (December 2) for a day of meetings and public events in Umatilla County and Walla Walla.

SeaPort replaces Horizon Airlines with air service multiple times a day from Pendleton to Portland using a nine-place plane, rather than the Horizon Q-400 that seats more than 70 people.

The flight was great and the community is pleased to have a new carrier. So pleased, the Pendleton Chamber of Commerce Ambassadors threw a ribbon cutting, cake-eating party in celebration.

Afterwards, I traveled to St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton where I met with hospital executives and staff. Over the years I had worked closely with the hospital's CEO, Jeff Drop, on rural health care issues. He's since moved on to manage a larger complex in North Dakota and I wanted to get to know his replacement, Ted Fox, and get caught up on issues they're facing.

We had a good discussion about the role health information technology can play in reducing medical and prescription errors while improving efficiency. However, the upfront costs and common software platforms remain as obstacles.

We also discussed the huge costs headed health care's way to protect patient records from identity theft. Sounds like security and compliance costs are posing real problems and costs.

Meanwhile, as we all know, recruiting physicians, nurses and people who do every part of health care delivery is difficult, especially in rural areas. I learned in the meeting that one problem they encounter is the length of time it takes to get a physician from another state certified in Oregon. While some states do take longer, apparently it can take between four and six months to process the paperwork. If you're a doctor finishing a residency program in another state, that means a long delay, possibly without pay. As a result, some providers chose to locate in other states simply because of this delay. While ensuring patient safety and physician qualifications is essential, there must be a way to get it done faster than six months.

I let them know that I'll be leading an effort in the House when Congress reconvenes next year to fix the arbitrary cap on how many inpatients a rural hospital can house and still qualify for critical access hospital status. Under current law, a rural hospital loses a portion of its federal funding if it surpasses a 25-bed limit imposed under Medicare. Keeping under that limit can get tricky when flu season arrives.

That means patients are sometimes sent to the next hospital down the road, which means a long trip in rural Oregon. That's not good for the patient or their family, and it has to cost Medicare a bundle to pay for the trip. That doesn't make sense. Sen. Gordon Smith and I sponsored legislation to fix the problem last year. I've spoken with Senator Wyden about working with me on the issue when Congress reconvenes next year.

Rather than a daily limit of 25 patients, the legislation would give hospitals a yearly average to work against, which gives them the flexibility to deal with spikes in patient counts.

I also have legislation that ensures rural veterans aren't denied care because of the arbitrary cap. Their treatment would not count against the cap. We'll fold that bipartisan bill — the Veterans Critical Access Act — into the other measure so that we can bring management flexibility and greater access to health care to rural Oregonians.

After the meeting at St. Anthony, I was on the road to the Milton-Freewater Rotary Club for a congressional update and Q and A session with their members.

I talked about the various irrigation and water conservation projects I've worked on with local farmers and irrigation districts.

I also discussed the need to improve the levees to prevent Milton-Freewater from getting flooded. The Corps really needs to step up and help get that done before we have a much bigger problem.

Then I headed to Walla Walla to meet the new director of the Jonathon M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center, Brian Westfield. He's a good man whose family has roots in eastern Oregon. It's nice to have a director in place, finally; and one who is committed to finding solutions to the health care needs of our veterans.

The Congress recently approved $71.4 million in funding for the VA upgrade their facilities and add a new outpatient clinic, among other improvements. Those of us who represent the service area in the Congress are very pleased with the VA's decision to move forward and upgrade this old facility.

In addition to this new clinic, the state of Washington is considering approval of funding to build a veterans nursing home on the campus. The old one was forced to close last July, and the need for beds is only growing.

I asked Brian about other issues veterans are encountering where we could help. He suggested several, including the lack of authority for the VA to bring family members of veterans into counseling; special needs of traumatic brain injury patients and the desperate need for transportation for veterans to get to the new clinic in La Grande.

The new La Grande veterans clinic is providing service for a thousand veterans, 600 of whom used to have to drive to Walla Walla, and now can get care closer to where they live. Yet, for some they need a ride to get to the clinic. If the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) could raise funds for a van, the VA Medical Center would pay to maintain it and DAV volunteers would drive it. So an effort is underway to raise the money to buy a van.

A couple weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating in the groundbreaking ceremony for the new VA clinic in The Dalles that will eventually serve 1,200 veterans in the Gorge. In September, the VA announced it would open 10 Rural Outreach Clinics across the country by 2009. The clinic in The Dalles is one of those 10, which means 1,200 eligible veterans in the area probably won't have to travel to Portland to get basic health care once the 1,288 square foot clinic is finished.

Not long ago Congress, recognizing the cost to travel for care had exploded, tripled the mileage reimbursement rate from 11 cents per mile to 28.5 cents… and last month increased it again to 41.5 cents per mile. The cost of fuel should not cost a veteran access to health care.

The auto bailout

When talks of a lame duck session of Congress (meaning a session after the election) first popped up, the majority was kicking around the idea of an additional $300 billion stimulus package. You may recall from the last e-newsletter that I expressed skepticism about that plan. When that proposal didn't gain a whole lot of traction, attention turned to a $25 billion bailout of American auto manufacturers.

As I write this, the industry is once again pressing its case. Tuesday the Speaker announced we might be in session next Wednesday, but she would announce more on Friday. So, we're in standby mode waiting to see if Democrats will move forward with a massive auto bailout and what that might look like.

One positive note is that the Senate finally passed the unemployment benefits extension that the House approved earlier this year with my support. It will provide a 7-week extension for those living in states with unemployment rates below 6 percent. For states with rates above 6 percent — including Oregon — the extension will be 13 weeks long. The latest jobless rate for Oregon is 7.3 percent.

It's essential that we get this economy going again. For many parts of the Second District that is best accomplished by better federal forest policy. The Association of Oregon Counties recently spoke up in favor of more active forest management and the jobs that would come from it.

It costs four times as much to fight forest fires as to prevent them by proper thinning and treatments. We can create good paying jobs in rural communities again and generate tax revenue for the government at the same time. We can also turn the debris into a green energy source, as is already being done by hospitals and schools in eastern Oregon.

Later this week I'll be discussing irrigation and water issues during a speech to the Oregon Water Resources Congress meeting in Hood River, and then I'll discuss energy issues during a keynote address to the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Thank a veteran

During the holidays, our men and women who are overseas are unable to be home with their families. I encourage all of you that are able to take a moment to send a short note to a service member and share your gratitude and well wishes with them during this holiday season. The Red Cross is collecting and distributing holiday greeting cards from the American public to wounded warriors, all service members, their families, and veterans around the world. For more information about the Holiday Mail for Heroes program, please visit Cards must be postmarked no later than Wednesday, December 10, 2008.

One of the most important things we can do to support our nation's veterans is ensure that they are aware of the supportive services that exist for them to take advantage of. Communication is vital to reaching out to veterans, especially those that are not otherwise connected to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) system. The VA recently began distributing an important public service announcement (PSA) to more than a thousand television stations around the country featuring Forrest Gump and CSI: New York star Gary Sinise promoting awareness of the VA's nationwide suicide hotline. I was shocked and saddened to learn that nearly one-in-three suicides in Oregon is committed by a veteran. I invite you to view a web version of this PSA at and encourage you to share this information with anyone that may benefit from it.

As always, please know that if you or a loved one is a veteran or current service member who has questions on the benefits available or needs assistance with a federal agency such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, do not hesitate to contact my Medford office, toll free from the 541 area code, at (800) 533-3303. I am honored to lend a hand.

Best regards,

Greg Walden
Member of Congress

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