U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden spent almost two hours meeting with Wallowa County residents Nov. 4 in the Community Connection center in Enterprise, answering questions about topics ranging from the high cost of prescription drugs and energy to the war in Iraq.
The Democratic senator had just been re-elected to a new six-year term two days before, receiving about 64 percent of the vote in Oregon and garnering a 56 percent majority in Wallowa County, which voted Republican in every other partisan race. Wyden noted that his trip to Wallowa County was fulfilling his pledge when he was first became U.S. Senator in 1995 to hold a town hall meeting in each of the 36 counties of Oregon every year.
The senator, who immediately opened the floor to questions, emphasized his bipartisan approach and his working relationship with Republican Senator Gordon Smith on many issues.
He noted that the Nov. 2 election was "contentious," but the fact that it took place "with not a shot fired" is a sign of American democracy in action.
Drug costs too high
The first question had to do with the high cost of prescription drugs, and the feeling that the price of at least some prescription drugs had gone up dramatically, with drug companies positioning themselves to make a huge profit under the Medicare prescription bill.
"If you don't do right by your seniors, what does that say about your society?" said Wyden. He mentioned several actions he feels should be taken, including lifting a current legislative restriction so that Medicare can negotiate to hold drug prices down; allowing prescriptions to come in from Canada; and streamline the Medicare discount card program, which he called a "bureaucratic water torture" with 70 different cards now offered.
"If we take these actions, I can promise you that prescription costs to seniors will go down," Wyden said.
Boomers signal need for change
About health care costs in general and high insurance premium costs, Wyden said the nation's problems will really begin on Jan. 1, 2008, when the baby boomers start retiring. He said the nation must take steps now to hold down health care costs, especially catastrophic costs. Wyden said he would like to build a bipartisan attempt to stabilize the rate structure, using good ideas presented by John Kerry during his campaign and good ideas put forward by Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.
He said that discussion must begin on some of the social and ethical, as well as political aspects of health care. For example, he said that a full one third of health care costs are spent in the last few months of people's lives, without doing anything to either improve the quality of life or being medically effective. Should we instead transfer some of that money to pregnant women and kids? "We have to have that discussion," Wyden said. "It's going to be a bigger and bigger part of that health bill. People have no idea what's coming starting in 2008 to 2012."
Carolyn Pfeaster of Community Connection brought up the high cost of heating oil, and the severe lack of adequate funds to help all eligible seniors and low-income people through the fuel assistance program. "We're making a waiting list," she said. She mentioned one client whose monthly income is only $570 a month who is turning her thermostat down to 50 degrees as the winter approaches.
Wyden said that helping senior citizens stay warm not only is it the morally right thing to do, but also the right thing from a financial point of view. "If seniors don't get help, they get really sick, and that costs a lot more," he said.
Wyden noted that he noticed that gasoline is at $2.17 per gallon in Wallowa County suggested a number of measures that can be taken to reduce the cost of energy, starting with requiring the Federal Trade Commission to not allow anti-competition measures by the big oil companies, which he said would save $.07 a gallon for the West coast.
In the end though, the problem is that demand is going up worldwide and oil production is already at near-record levels, presenting a national security issue.
He gave a short version of a speech that he'd like to hear delivered by President George W. Bush - who may be thinking about his second term legacy - leading the nation into taking measures to get serious about reducing the county's dependence on fossil fuels by promoting both conservation and the development of alternate energy sources, rather than just more drilling.
Wyden said that it would be a very effective way of fighting Middle Eastern terrorism, and if the president took the lead, the whole country would rally behind him. "It would be like Richard Nixon going to China," he said.
In response to a question, Wyden said that he considers federal funds to develop the Wallowa Union Railroad to become self-sufficient as a "high priority project" and mentioned a transportation funding effort that involves selling bonds. "This is a key economic development project for the area, and we will pull out all stops until it is done."
About Iraq, Wyden noted that he had voted against going to war, because he felt that intelligence to support the war was very badly flawed and because Saddam Hussein, as bad as he was, wasn't "even the worse guy in the neighborhood."
However, Wyden said he voted for the $87 billion "to help our people in harm's way." He said that while the United States is in a very difficult position dealing with the Iraqi insurgency, "I'm hoping we can do it, and get the country stabilized. ... We can't just turn around in 15 minutes and pull out. ... We need to go back to the global community. We're all in this together."
During his visit to Wallowa County, Sen. Wyden admitted that being a Democrat in the post-election Republican-led Senate would be a challenge. "I try to be bipartisan when I can, but when I must, I will fight," he said.