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April 14, 2013
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Publisher's Notebook: Veterans fighting cancer should get treatment locally

It seems a little disingenuous for our politicians to be debating immigration amnesty — and the costs for that amnesty — while looking for ways to cut spending on veterans or senior citizens. Seems to me we need to get our spending priorities squared away before it’s too late (I know … don’t say it).

So long as we are taking good care of our own citizens — and I’d love to hear why my daughter is paying out-of-state tuition at the University of Oregon while students who are not even U.S. citizens aren’t — I’m all for spreading the love around.

At the top of that priority list sit our veterans — the ones we paid 50 cents an hour or less in exchange for putting their lives on the line. The deal was supposed to work something like this: “We’ll pay you 50 cents an hour, give you some training, chow (they call it chow because some of it doesn’t qualify as food), uniforms, equipment and send you out in front of someone who will try to kill you, but when you’re done we’ll make up for that rotten pay, borderline food and those miserable working conditions by providing some wonderful benefits for the rest of your life.”

In fact, the deal should have been a little more specific: “If you don’t come home in a box, we’ll make sure you get the same benefits as the politicians who sent you to war.”

And I’m just talking about medical benefits, not the $173,000 salary, travel, lunches, pension plan, or other perks that come with a standard Congressional office. We’ll keep it simple.

To that end, I wonder if the government would send a U.S. senator or congressman from Roseburg all the way to Portland for cancer radiation treatment. I ask because that’s where we are sending Roseburg-area veterans for cancer treatment. Never mind there is a wonderful Community Cancer Center right in our own backyard.

I heard about that issue a month or so ago during a lunch with Mel Cheney, who heads our local, nonprofit Community Cancer Center (by way of full disclosure, I’m on the board). Cheney is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet and a Vietnam veteran. He was a little frustrated because the VA Roseburg Healthcare System had been sending local vets all the way to Portland and beyond for cancer treatment his facility could easily provide. The cancer center and local VA hospital have had an “on and off” relationship for several years and lately it’s been more off than on.

Imagine having to drive all the way to Portland for a series of daily radiation treatments that could last more than a month. Imagine the inconvenience — on your family, caregivers, maybe your pets and job — of having to spend a full day in Portland for a radiation treatment that typically takes maybe a half-hour to administer?

“All we are trying to do is reduce the suffering of veterans with cancer,” Cheney said. “These people are really sick and in pain. This is not some frivolous expenditure of money, like a GSA convention in Hawaii or Vegas.”

As we have heard, the list of frivolous government expenditures is longer than Al Capone’s rap sheet.

Unfortunately, this is all about money. Rather than respond to our requests for an explanation — I even sent her an email list of questions to make it easy on her — Roseburg VA Director Carol Bogedain addressed the issue in a house organ column she called “Director’s Reveille Call.”

“While the opportunity to use the community is a great resource, it’s not free,” she reminded us. “Over the last four years, fees have gone from $15.7 million to over $26 million, including $1.7 million in cancer care.”

She wrote that those costs come directly from her Roseburg facility budget, which means it’s one less dollar she can spend to hire people, “buy supplies, pay for patient travel, or fund other needed costs to expand VA services.”

All of that makes sense — until you actually think about it for more than a second. If you send a veteran with cancer to a Roseburg cancer center rather than one in Portland, won’t the travel costs go down? And why expand if you can’t pay for the treatment you are currently providing?

It should be noted that the VA hospital in Portland doesn’t actually provide the cancer treatment. It contracts those services to Oregon Health Sciences University. But those costs are incurred by the Portland VA facility, not the Roseburg facility. The actual costs for the treatment are probably cheaper here because our cancer center takes whatever money the patient can afford. In fact, in a previous arrangement with the Roseburg VA hospital the cancer center reduced its fees more than 25 percent (20 percent for Medicare and a 6 percent discount to the VA).

Never mind that it all comes from the same pool of tax dollars and was paid for with the same pool of blood spilled by millions of soldiers. We are sending veterans with cancer to Portland because, well, it makes somebody’s budget look better and that’s how the game is played.

Cheney thinks our country should be ashamed of the way it has treated its veterans. “When prisoners in our penitentiaries receive better access to health care than the men and women who fought for this country, then something is dreadfully amiss,” he said.

While I’m glad to have the VA facility in Roseburg (the economic impact is huge) and certain that the 800 or so people who work there provide compassionate care to our veteran community, I’d like to see a lot more thought given to the benefits of a strategic partnership that could make life a lot easier for those veterans who may be fighting a new enemy in the form of cancer.

Anything is possible. It’s just a matter of priorities.

Jeff Ackerman is publisher of The News-Review. He can be reached at 541-957-4263 or

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The News-Review Updated Apr 15, 2013 08:11AM Published Apr 14, 2013 12:04AM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.