Oregon U.S. Senator Ron Wyden did not offer much hope that money accrued to Wallowa County through Secure Rural Schools Funds appropriated by Congress would pay to reopen Wallowa County Library.
The windfall resulting from a bill Wyden authored, requires the government to replace the lost federal timber revenue of rural counties with financial allocations.
A questioner at a town hall meeting he conducted May 26 pointed out commissioners had taken the opportunity to stop funding the county’s library due to a lack of funding when SRS was chopped for a year.
“I don’t know if this is a question, but I wonder if you could speak to our county commissioners and encourage them to move this funding back into the library system,” she said.
She received medium applause from the 40 or so in attendance. Wyden said that while his mother was a librarian and he considered libraries an essential service, the law itself did not prescribe library funding.
“I don’t want to set this law up as something that tells local officials they have to do it exactly the way I would do it if I was a local official,” he said.
Health care was also a discussion topic.
A man stood up with a plastic grocery bag half-filled with prescription medication bottles. “I think you’re going to talk about prescriptions,” Wyden said with a smile.
The man recounted chronic back problems rendered him unable to work. Rising health insurance and prescription medication costs left him penniless.
“I pay $650 just for health insurance,” he said, “between the copays, deductibles and co-insurances. For the third year in a row, I’ve spent more on health care than on my own house.”
Wyden noted that the man was one who was forced to buy individual health insurance because he didn’t qualify for the Oregon Health Plan or have employer’s insurance. He said that the demise of the purchase requirement of the Affordable Care Act had caused a number of healthy people to pull out of the act affected many rural Americans with the resulting higher premiums.
He said the senate’s finance committee was working on ways to lower the price of prescription medications and supported lifting restrictions on Medicare prescription bargaining.
“I don’t understand why we don’t have public option so that people can have choices,” Wyden said. The senator asked for the man’s contact information as he might be needed to help lay out the case for further reform.
The man’s situation was not unique, Wyden informed the audience and that his and similar cases. accounted for 11-12 percent of the healthcare market
“You are far from alone, sir,” he said. “You are the face of this healthcare calamity.”
Dr. Elizabeth Powers of the Winding Waters Clinic added that under the ACA, the clinic saw only five percent of its patients uninsured, but that after the act’s demise, rates had spiked to 17 percent.
The senate had debated the idea of lowering the age of Medicare eligibility from 65 to 55 as well as allowing others to buy into Medicaid, something Wyden said he favored.
Further complicating the process was the lack of bipartisan efforts, particularly in the U.S. House, Wyden noted.
He noted that his work with Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah helped fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program for 10 years. He also said through bipartisan work that legislation for major Medicare reform for chronic diseases and foster care were accomplished in the Senate.
“In the senate at least, we’ve been able to advance some bipartisanship, but in the House it looks like a dead end, and that’s my take on it,” he said.
Wyden also spoke of the passage of forest management reform as part of the omnibus spending package that the president signed recently. The reform helped end “fire borrowing,” in which the U.S. Forest Service was forced to take money from forest management programs to fight increasingly severe wildfires.
The senator went into greater detail on the forestry bill during an exclusive interview with the Chieftain. Wyden and Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho had attempted for seven years to get wildfire spending reform through congress.
What had changed to allow its passage was wildfire itself.
“The fire season was so brutal last year that it opened up a lot of eyes,” he said. “No one imagined a fire leaping the Columbia River.”
He also noted the appearance of new players in the game, including secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.
“He was enormously helpful,” Wyden said. “He listened to me again and again about the package.” The senator also said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate’s Minority Leader was helpful.
“When you’ve got something that both Sonny Perdue and Chuck Schumer are in favor of, it’s a pretty good indication you’ve got something to work with.” The 90-minute stop at the Josephy Center in Joseph marked town hall event number 896 for the senator since he took office in 1996.
Wallowa County Commissioner Todd Nash and Commissioner-elect Bruce Dunn attended.