Wyden hangs with 'rednecks'

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden takes time out from his town hall meeting to check out the action at the Redneck Roundup in Enterprise Saturday. Photo by Angelika Dietrich-Garoutte

The proposed closure of the veterans hospital in Walla Walla and other veterans' issues were at the top of the list of concerns presented to Sen. Ron Wyden at his annual town hall meeting in Wallowa County Saturday.

After an appearance at the Red Neck Rodeo and Wallowa County Fair, Wyden answered questions for an hour and a half for 50 county residents in the courtroom of the Wallowa County Courthouse in Enterprise.

The gathering included a contingent of veterans, and Wyden addressed some of their concerns by distributing a letter at the beginning of the meeting addressed to the head of Veteran's Affairs expressing his opposition to the closure of the Walla Walla facilities and two other veterans hospitals in Oregon.

"I disagrees so strongly with closing the Walla Walla hospital, I will pull out stops to keep it from happening," said Wyden. "It would be another body blow to this part of the state."

As he did several times during the meeting, the Democratic senator brought up his close working relationship with Oregon's Republican senator, Gordon Smith. "I should make it clear this is a bipartisan issue," he said. "We need to get all hands on deck. This is an American thing. ... This is a social contract we signed with our veterans, that your government will be there for your medical needs."

Sen. Wyden made a statement about being able to find $1 billion a week to deal with Iraq, alluding to sweetheart-type contracts, and added, "we ought to find funds for the veterans' hospitals."

He was challenged from the audience by a man who identified himself as a veteran who felt promises regarding such things as retirements and medical care had not been kept , and stated, "You became very partisan in a hurry ...when you started to talk about Iraq. Iraq has nothing to do with it."

Wyden said "with all due respect" that he'd voted continuously for veteran's program, and opposed the thinking that "sweetheart deals in Iraq have higher priority than a hospital that serves Eastern Oregon."

Wyden urged all VFW members, other veterans and supporters "to create as much of a grassroots juggernaut as we can" with e-mails, phone calls and letters to legislators and VA administrators.

Other topics Wyden covered during the question and answer meeting included:

- The Forest Health Bill, which has passed the U.S. House and is now before the Senate. "It has very good features in it, but there are areas that will be hard to get the votes." He said he was working with a Republican senator to "get all sides together, trying to find common ground." He said that clearly there is the need for money for fire fighting, and said that the "dead stuff building up in the forest" as the result of neglect results in infernos.

- Gay marriage - "This has become the big issue? The big issue is jobs and schools and medical care .... I think it's a private matter, none of the government's business."

- The Country of Origin Label (COOL), being proposed for the cattle industry. Local rancher Jack McClaran brought up the issue, explaining that the idea of requiring labels for the country of origin on beef products has been very divisive among cattlemen. He said while the objective of seeing consumers being willing to pay more for meat they know is raised in the United States is supported by many, but on the other hand many are concerned about the increase of federal involvement and enforcement such a measure would mean.

"That's the best presentation I've ever heard," Sen. Wyden told McClaran after he talked briefly about both sides of the issue. He asked McClaran to write up his presentation for future consideration and use.

- The high cost of medicine in the United States. Wyden said while the recently passed prescription bill will help low-income people and people who have catastrophic medical expenses, "People who aren't going to get much help, are those in the middle," he said.

The question of why prescriptions are so much less expensive in other countries, such as Mexico and Canada, was posed, and Wyden stated it was because much of the rest of the world depends on U.S. research. It was noted that the FDA is very slow to approve some drugs, and the main audience said they would support drugs being allowed into this country that had been approved by some other countries, such as England and Canada, in a straw vote. Wyden said he would look at the issue again.

- Health care reform. Wyden said that he and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch had introduced the first health care reform bill in a decade. "We're spending a lot of money, at a staggering cost ... but there's hardly anything for wellness," he said. "It's a crazy way to run the railroad."

At the end of the hour- and- a- half meeting, Wyden brought up that he felt his annual town hall meetings in every county in Oregon represented what the Founding Fathers had in mind when the country was formed. "I hope they say, 'this is the way it is supposed to be done.' I have lots to follow up on," said Wyden. "Thanks for being part of democracy."

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