May 22, 2007

Wyden Hails Decision to Expand Health Care to Vets in Eastern Oregon through New Clinic in La Grande

Portland - U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) today applauded the decision by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to establish a Community Based Outpatient Clinic for veterans in La Grande.

Wyden, who has lobbied hard for a La Grande clinic, said that according to preliminary projections his office has received from the Walla Walla, Washington, VA Medical Center (VAMC) planning staff, approximately 1,570 Eastern Oregon veterans will be able to receive care at the new La Grande outpatient facility.

Wyden added that for the nearly 900 veterans living in remote Wallowa County, a new clinic in La Grande means that their travel time to a VA facility should be cut in half.

"A La Grande clinic is a great first step toward expanding access to health care for veterans in Eastern Oregon," Wyden said. "This outpatient clinic will be a critical resource for veterans who are trying to access medical care while working during the day as well as for aging veterans who have difficulty seeing while driving at night."

Wyden has met with veterans in La Grande several times over the last few years to discuss their concerns about the threatened closure of the Walla Walla VAMC as well as access to health care. In each of the meetings, more than 100 veterans and family members attended, voicing their frustrations with too-little access, roads that could be treacherous in the winter and travel reimbursements that did not cover the cost of their gasoline.

The Senator has written to the VA Secretary several times, encouraging the VA to maintain the Walla Walla facility and reinstate the five inpatient beds that were closed in 2006. His letters have urged the VA to create a plan for veterans' services that allows affected veterans to have input and provide access to health care that does not require veterans to travel 300 miles on a Greyhound bus for medical tests or treatment.

Just last month, following a series of meetings with Oregon veterans and their families, veterans' organizations and VA officials, Wyden joined several colleagues in introducing The Rural Veterans Healthcare Improvement Act of 2007, which addresses many of the concerns the Senator heard in his meetings. The bipartisan legislation would:

  • Increase reimbursements for veterans in rural areas for the traveling expenses they incur when driving long distances to VA medical facilities. It would reimburse veterans at the same rate paid to federal employees instead of the current — significantly lower — rate.

  • Create a transportation grant program to improve access and care for veterans living in rural and/or geographically remote areas. The program would provide grants of up to $50,000 to veterans' service organizations and state veterans' service officers to assist veterans with travel to VA medical centers and to improve healthcare access in remote rural areas.

  • Develop demonstration projects to expand care in rural areas through partnerships between the VA, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Department of Health and Human Services at critical access hospitals and community health centers.

Wyden also has recently cosponsored the following bills:

Lane Evans Veterans Health and Benefits Improvement Act (S. 117) — Establishes a system to track new veterans so that the VA can more efficiently budget and provide for veterans' care; extends the window for new veterans to receive VA mental health screening from the current 2 years to 5 years; requires face-to-face mental and physical health screenings 30-to-90 days after deployment to minimize the number of service members who fall through the cracks; provides each service member with his or her own secure electronic health and service record to facilitate the application for VA benefits and health care; and improves the transition assistance that National Guardsmen and military reservists receive when they return from deployment.

VA Hospital Quality Report Card Act of 2007 (S. 692) — Implements a Hospital Quality Report Card Initiative to report on health care quality in VA hospitals and requires published reports on VA hospital quality, including assessments of effectiveness, safety, timeliness, and efficiency.

Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act of 2007 (S. 713) — Establishes strict standards for the physical condition of military patient housing with frequent required inspections; streamlines the Physical Disability Evaluation System and allows the most severely injured service members to bypass unnecessary and lengthy steps; increases the number of caseworkers to assist recovering service members; and provides federal protections for the jobs of family members who are caring for recovering service members.

Veterans Navigator Act of 2007 (S. 882) — Provides federal grants to fund "navigators" to help veterans enter the VA system. The funding would build on existing programs run by Veterans Service Organizations (and others) and would allow them to expand these programs in response to increased demand from veterans returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Coming Together for Guard and Reserve Families Act (S. 902) — Authorizes the Secretary of Defense to expand the family assistance program to work with National Guard and Reserve families throughout the deployment cycle and to provide post-deployment follow-up and referrals with family members for mental health and family support issues.

Retired Pay Restoration Act of 2007 (S. 439) — Allows the receipt of both military retired pay and veterans' disability compensation for any service-connected disability.

Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2007 (S. 22) — Expands the Montgomery GI Bill for members of the National Guard and reserves who serve on active duty in the Armed Forces on or after September 11, 2001.