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VA to downgrade emergency department to 12-hour urgent care beginning Aug. 16

The Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center announced this afternoon it will close its 24/7 emergency department and convert it to an urgent care clinic that is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The change will take place Aug. 16.

In a news release, the VA said it’s making the change because it has a shortage of qualified providers to staff laboratory, radiology and respiratory services that are needed by an emergency department in order to safely provide care.

“We will continue to work with all our community-based health care providers to ensure our Veterans continue to receive the care they earned as servicemembers,” said Roseburg VA Director Keith Allen in a written statement. “We will continue listening to our Veterans and families, and work toward streamlining and improving VA-provided and community care access.”

The possibility of conversion to an urgent care has been under discussion at the VA for at least a year, and veteran leaders had suspected it was a possibility as early as 2009 when the VA closed its intensive care unit.

Veterans have expressed opposition to the idea, and an announcement by former interim VA director Dave Whitmer last year that the emergency department would drop 24/7 care drew fire. It was dropped after the VA was unable to receive a waiver to operate as a 12-hour emergency department.

Allen had warned veterans at a town hall meeting in June that a downgrade to urgent care was likely. He said that he believes it’s safer for veterans to obtain emergency care at other hospitals that provide full services.

Douglas County Veterans Forum President Larry Hill said Friday the change was not unexpected; however, he expressed disappointment that veterans were not informed that the time frame had be changed. They were previously told the change would likely take place at the end of the year.

He said the possibility had been raised by the last three or four directors, but each drew back and kicked the can down the road.

“This was coming, and it was just a matter of time. It really was,” he said.

VA Public Affairs Officer Tim Parish said the change came down suddenly, in the last 36 hours, due to additional staffing shortages in key positions. The decision was ultimately about patient safety, he said, and the regional network that oversees the Roseburg VA approved a more rapid downgrade than originally planned.

Thousands of Oregonians may lose food stamp benefits

A federal rule proposed last week could bar thousands of Oregonians from receiving food stamps.

The rule announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would prevent people who receive benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program from automatically qualifying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Forty-three states, including Oregon, currently permit automatic eligibility.

The Trump administration said the proposed change would close a loophole that allowed people who receive minimal TANF benefits and don’t need food stamps from receiving SNAP.

“For too long, this loophole has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines. Too often, states have misused this flexibility without restraint,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

The proposed change has caused a backlash from food security advocates nationwide and local and state elected officials in Oregon. Opponents said the change would increase food insecurity, particularly for children, harming vulnerable families who rely on SNAP.

A delegation of Oregon Democrats, including U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and U.S. Reps. Peter DeFazio, Suzanne Bonamici, Earl Blumenauer and Kurt Schrader wrote a letter on Wednesday urging Perdue to withdraw the proposal.

“We are especially concerned about the number of Oregon children — many of whom receive their only meal of the day at school — who will lose access to free school meals,” the delegation wrote. “While the vast majority of these children may qualify for reduced-price meals, they will have to reapply for the program and bring lunch money in order to continue to eat at school. Because schools are reimbursed at a lower rate for children who participate in reduced-price meals, this change will also mean less money for schools.”

The administration estimates 3.1 million people nationwide would have their benefits revoked. Jennifer Grentz, a spokeswoman with the Oregon Department of Human Services said more than 66,000 Oregonians would lose their benefits.

DHS is still reviewing local numbers and doesn’t yet have an estimate of how many Douglas County residents would lose their benefits, or how many children would no longer receive a free lunch.

Almost 25,000 people in the county received SNAP benefits in June, including nearly 7,500 children, according to DHS statistics. At least 1,800 people in Douglas County received TANF benefits in June.

Fifteen percent of all residents and 25% of children in the county were considered food insecure, according to a June 2018 report by the Oregon Center for Public Policy using 2016 data from the Oregon Department of Human Services. Both percentages were higher than state averages.

Food insecurity is defined as people who said they struggled to put food on the table or didn’t know how they would get their next meal within the last three years.

More than 50% of children at each school district in the county qualify for free and reduced lunches, according to 2013 report by Douglas County nonprofits. In some school districts, more than 80% of students qualify.

The Oregon Food Bank argued on its website that the proposed change would also hurt local economies.

“Each federal dollar that comes to Oregon through SNAP benefits creates $1.79 in economic activity,” the organization wrote.

United Community Action Network Food Bank manager Sarah McGregor said if the proposed rule goes into effect, Douglas County should expect the number of people who are food insecure to increase. She added more people will likely need to access the food bank.

“I’m a little appalled by this change,” McGregor said. “What we all know in the emergency food work is that SNAP is the most effective tool in the fight against hunger. It’s the first line of defense for people when they are hungry.”

This isn’t the first time the Trump administration tried to reduce the number of people receiving SNAP. Last December, the administration proposed the same change to Congress, but it was rejected.

McGregor said she’s not surprised by the proposal. She said the national conversation around entitlements often stigmatizes people who receive SNAP as unwilling to work hard to provide for themselves and their families.

“Low-income individuals are stigmatized all the time and made out to seem like they’re cheating the system, but it takes a lot to swallow your dignity enough to go and apply for assistance,” McGregor said. “It’s not an easy thing. I don’t know how many people have tried to have the experience of going to DHS to talk to a caseworker about your family’s income ... and to share with someone and feel like you’re maybe doing what you can for your kids. That is not a good feeling.”

There’s a handful of people in every situation that try to cheat the system, but that doesn’t represent the vast majority of people who would be affected by the change, she said.

“It’s very frustrating because we’re trying to help feed people and we feel like we’re doing good work, and that we’re kind of moving the needle,” McGregor said. “Something like this would reverse the trend that we’ve seen.”

People have until Sept. 23 to submit comments to the USDA about the proposal.

Grants Pass man pleads not guilty to child sex crimes in Douglas County

A Josephine County man has pleaded not guilty to 24 counts involving child sex abuse in Douglas County and a trial date has been set for later this month.

Otis Darrell Huey, 52, of Grants Pass, appeared before Douglas County Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Johnson on Friday morning in Roseburg.

Huey is accused of 23 counts of first-degree sex abuse and one count of first-degree unlawful sexual penetration in Douglas County. His alleged actions involved three females under the age of 14 between June 1, 2005, and June 1, 2009.

Johnson set the trial date for Aug. 27 in courtroom 403 and expects it to last about four days. A pretrial conference is set for Aug. 20.

Huey is already serving a 12 1/2 year prison term for sexually abusing a minor in Josephine County. He was convicted in Grants Pass on May 30. Earlier this year he was sentenced for abusing a 13-year-old girl between June 1, 2005 and June 1, 2009. She claimed that Huey sexually abused her from the time she was 6 years old.

Huey was also convicted for a child sex crime in California 18 years ago on a charge of “lewd and lascivious acts upon a child” under 14 years old.

Veterans launch letter writing campaign over loss of state funding for Roseburg veterans home

Local veterans are mounting a letter-writing campaign to push the state to recommit funds toward a proposed veterans home on the Roseburg Veterans Affairs campus.

The proposal is for a 120- to 150-bed home that would provide nursing home and memory care to veterans. It would be the third state veterans home in Oregon and would be modeled on a similar facility in Lebanon. Estimates for its cost have ranged from $30-$45 million dollars, depending in part on the number of beds.

Douglas County Veterans Forum President Larry Hill said the veterans are angry that $10.5 million in lottery bond money for the veterans home wasn’t renewed in the 2019 legislative session, while the Legislature did approve $10 million for another Roseburg project, an allied health college, also known as the med ed college or the Southern Oregon Medical Workforce Center.

Hill said this is the latest in a long line of promises made and broken to build a veterans home in Roseburg. The first of those promises, he said, was made in 1893.

He said he plans to print 1,500 copies of a letter he’s written to Gov. Kate Brown, the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs and state legislators. He and other veteran leaders will sit at the Douglas County Veterans Service Office booth at the Douglas County Fair next week and encourage others to sign copies to be sent to those officials.

Hill said he blames the new ODVA director, who he said was less interested in the Roseburg veterans home than the previous director. He also blames local legislators, who he said “caved and went over to the med-ed side.”

“They did a real disservice to the veteran community, and I don’t think that they are fully cognizant of the effort that’s gone into it over the years,” he said.

The Roseburg VA and the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs in 2018 expressed strong support for building a veterans home here. The Legislature has also committed to siting the next vets home in Roseburg, even enshrining that commitment in a state law.

The problem has been the money.

In order for the project to go forward, it would have to obtain both state and federal funding — with the federal VA providing 65% of the funding and the state a 35% match. The state first committed its part of the funds, from state lottery bonds, in 2011. State Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Winston, had secured a renewal of that funding for the project in the 2015 and 2017 sessions, but the project had never risen high enough on the federal VA’s priority list to become a reality.

Heard said he did advocate for a fifth renewal of the state funding, but with the federal government failing to prioritize the project, there just wasn’t a way to get the home built within the two years before state funding would have expired again.

The anticipated cost had also risen, increasing the state’s share from $10.5 million to more than $16 million. Heard said that compounded the difficulty he and Rep. Gary Leif, R-Roseburg, had at making a strong case for the project. It was made even tougher, he said, by the fact the Democrats had a supermajority.

“The VA home is still a top priority for us going forward, but we have many other desperate needs in this community that are ready to go now and are not dependent on the federal government funding the project,” Heard said. “It is my hope that we will start getting strong support from our federal Congress members to get the project prioritized by the feds so we can re-secure the state matching funds in the 2021 cycle.”

Heard pushed hard and successfully for the approval of $10 million in lottery bonds for the allied health college. That project does not require any federal funds, and the city of Roseburg has also pledged a $10 million loan toward the construction cost.

The college would be a satellite of George Fox University and would offer four-year and advanced degrees in nursing, psychology, physical therapy and other healthcare fields that are in demand locally and around the state. According to a study commissioned by the city, it would be a $38 million boost to the local economy over the next 20 years.

Hill reached out to former interim Roseburg VA director David Whitmer, a supporter of both projects, in July about the future of the vets home. Hill asked Whitmer if the approval for the health college had jeopardized the vets home.

Whitmer, in turn, reached out to Pac/West Communications, a lobbying firm representing the college project. Pac/West Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Ryan Tribbett wrote back July 15 that both projects were lobbied for by Pac/West and supported by Heard and Rep. Gary Leif.

“All of our meeting contained both requests, and while we were regularly told that $26.5 million to fund both the VA home and the school was too much money for little old Roseburg, we continued lobbying for both all the way to the end,” Tribbett wrote.

Tribbett wrote that he sees the two projects as complementary. He said the college will help the Roseburg VA fill its 250 vacancies in nursing and other jobs.

If created, the vets home would be owned and operated by the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA has agreed to a land swap with the state so the vets home could be sited on the VA campus.

Veterans have hoped for a large veterans home there since 1893, when Roseburg was chosen as the site for an Oregon Soldiers Home, according to Earle B. Stewart American Legion Post 16 Historian Kirk Conner.

In 1929, Roseburg’s Dr. Earle B. Stewart successfully lobbied to have Roseburg named as the site of a proposed Northwest Soldiers Home, Conner said in an email to Hill. The National Soldiers Home Bureau pledged that a 400-acre facility would house 4,500 veterans.

That never happened.

Instead, the Oregon Soldiers Home, which had housed 69 veterans, was merged with the Roseburg VA in 1933 and the veterans moved there. The Soldiers Home building burned down later that decade and was never rebuilt.