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Veterans
DeFazio tours Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, is feeling optimistic about the changes at the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center. It’s like night and day, he said, over what it was just a few months ago.

DeFazio toured the VA along with Interim Director Dave Whitmer and an entourage of community leaders like state Rep. Gary Leif and Douglas County Veterans Forum President Larry Hill Tuesday morning.

DeFazio has been critical of the performance of past Roseburg VA directors Carol Bogedain and Doug Paxton, and he had called for an investigation that ultimately resulted in Paxton’s resignation. But he had high praise for Whitmer.

“Now we’ve got a fabulous acting director. I wish he would stay,” DeFazio said in an interview with The News-Review Editorial Board Tuesday afternoon.

He noted many local veterans were concerned that with the new VA clinic in Eugene, Roseburg would be downgraded, but he said under Whitmer the VA is being upgraded. DeFazio said it bodes very well for the future that the Roseburg VA has moved from one to two stars since Whitmer arrived four months ago, and that it’s likely they’ll get to three stars before his year-long temporary assignment is over.

“I just think it’s a phenomenal improvement,” DeFazio said.

Whitmer has said he planned only to stay for one year. DeFazio said he’s not worried about what will happen when Whitmer leaves because the director has been aggressively recruiting good managers and he will be the chief recruiting officer for his own replacement.

“I don’t think we’re going to get someone else who’s just looking at coming to Roseburg to get ready for retirement. I think we’ll get hopefully someone who is a competent up and coming manager who looks at Roseburg as an opportunity to improve and then move up to a bigger hospital,” DeFazio said.

During his VA visit, DeFazio toured the Acute Psych Unit, one of the Roseburg VA’s newer facilities.

And he met with World War II veteran Glen Kuskie. Kuskie joined the Army at age 16, and served in the 31st Infantry Regiment in the Philippines. He was captured by the Japanese, was a prisoner of war for 34 months, and survived the Bataan Death March. In 1944, he was brought aboard a Japanese prison ship, the Shin’yō Maru, also known as a “hell ship.” It was attacked by an American submarine, whose occupants were unaware American prisoners were aboard. He was one of 82 survivors. He floated on a hatch cover, picking up other survivors, and made it to the Sindangan Bay in the Philippines, where he was rescued by Filipino guerillas.

After World War II was over, he joined the U.S. Air Force, and served another 18 years.

He belatedly received the Congressional Gold Medal for Filipino World War II service, and decided not to open the box containing it until his meeting with DeFazio Tuesday.

Kuskie showed DeFazio a medal he had received, and DeFazio gave Kuskie a flag.

“This is a flag we had flown over the United states Capitol in your honor,” DeFazio said.

DeFazio told Kuskie he too was an Air Force veteran.

“I’m very honored to have met you,” he said.

Kuskie said he planned to keep the flag.

“I never expected it,” he told The News-Review. He said DeFazio’s visit was “really good.”

DeFazio told The News-Review Kuskie’s story is inspiring, and it’s amazing that he would voluntarily re-enlist in the military after surviving the Bataan Death March.

“I don’t know that we’re made of that anymore in this country,” he said.

Hill, the veterans forum president, posed for a photo with DeFazio, and said he was happy about the visit.

“Even though it is an election year, it was good to see him,” he quipped.

Whitmer said he was glad to have DeFazio’s support.

“We appreciate having Congressman DeFazio here to really observe the changes we’re making on behalf of our veterans,” he said.

As a result of DeFazio’s call for an for an investigation into the Roseburg VA last year, investigators from the Office of the Medical Inspector and the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection visited the Roseburg campus and interviewed more than 100 VA employees.

In the wake of that investigation, former director Paxton, former chief of surgery Dinesh Ranjan, and former chief of staff Ratnabali Ranjan stepped down. After Paxton left, the VA brought in Whitmer, a change agent who plans to be on campus for about one year, make improvements, and then return to his job as chief operating officer for the Florida-based Sunshine Health Network.

In a two-page summary report, the OMI said in February that the former Roseburg VA senior leadership had created an environment of intimidation. It also identified problems with medical services in some departments. The News-Review has submitted a Freedom of Information Act Request with the VA’s central office in Washington, D.C., for a copy of the full report.

DeFazio told the House Veterans Affairs Committee May 16 that he had to appeal to the top, to former VA secretary David Shulkin, in order to get an investigation. He said he repeatedly brought problems at the Roseburg VA to the attention of the regional network that oversees it, but that the regional network directors “blew it all off.” He has called for the regional networks to be either consolidated or abolished.

DeFazio also spoke with The News-Review about the upcoming election and about the ways he said both parties have failed rural Americans.

DeFazio said he has concerns about his party’s national image.

“I think both parties have failed rural America, and working class America in different ways,” he said.

He said Republican deregulation and the recently approved tax reform have helped very large corporations but hurt rural America, creating budget deficits that could be plugged by reducing Social Security and Medicare benefits.

However, DeFazio agrees with Republican President Donald Trump that trade policies supported by congressional Republicans and Democratic presidents, like NAFTA and the TPP, were bad for ordinary workers.

He said while forests were over-cut in the 1970s and ‘80s, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, which has been “catastrophic” for Southwest Oregon. He’s worked with Republicans in Congress to pass laws to fix that, but they haven’t won Senate approval.

DeFazio will face Republican Art Robinson for the fifth time in the November general election.

“Art’s persistent, you’ve got to give him that,” DeFazio said. “We’ll see what happens.”

DeFazio said Robinson was the first congressional candidate backed by a super PAC, billionaire Wall Street hedge fund speculator Robert Mercer. And he said Robinson was the first congressional candidate to use Cambridge Analytica, a company DeFazio said was stealing personal data in an effort to figure out how to sway voters.

“He’s had powerful allies in the past, and it hasn’t worked out so well, but I take nothing for granted, and I will vigorously campaign,” he said.


National_politics
Merkley says Senate needs to prioritize working families at town hall meeting in Elkton

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley said the Republican-led Senate focused on all the wrong things in 2017, prioritizing what people in power want over the needs of the working class.

Merkley, D-Oregon, made his comments at a town hall in Elkton Tuesday, and at a meeting with The News-Review Editorial Board in Roseburg beforehand.

Merkley was vague when asked by The News-Review whether he might make a run at the presidency in 2020. He said he’s exploring his options.

He believes a “blue wave” will likely restore a Democratic majority in the House in the November election, but was less certain the same would be true in the Senate, where 26 of the 35 seats up for election are already held by Democrats.

“Everywhere I go I see folks disgusted with the degradation of the office of the presidency, and very concerned about this government by and for the powerful rather than for the people. We need to push back and reclaim policy that will help ordinary families do better,” Merkley told the editorial board.

At the town hall, Merkley spoke to about 150 people, taking questions on a variety of topics, from climate change to trade with China.

Elkton High School Senior Brad Meador said people his age voted for Bernie Sanders. He wanted to know what steps Merkley would take to advance a progressive agenda that could win back youth support for the Democratic party.

“Some of you may be happy to hear, and others of you may be unhappy to hear that I’m the only senator who endorsed Bernie Sanders,” Merkley answered.

He said he did that because of Sanders’ focus on things that would enable families to thrive — affordable housing and health care, living wage jobs and education.

“Those things are being terribly neglected right now,” he said.

Merkley said the institutions of democracy are being corrupted. Last year, for example, he said the Senate only considered three basic issues, and senators weren’t allowed to bring up amendments to bills, except in the budget process.

“That’s not the U.S. Senate, the Senate considered hundreds of amendments per year in the past, but zero last year,” he said.

In 2017, many senators tried to eliminate health care for between 22 and 30 million Americans, and the Senate passed a tax bill that borrows $1.5 trillion and mostly benefits the richest Americans, Merkley said.

The third issue involved what Merkley called the “theft” of a Supreme Court seat. In 2016, the Senate refused to debate and vote on then-President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. Instead, the senators waited until 2017 and voted on President Donald Trump’s nominee.

That’s never happened before in the history of the Senate, Merkley said.

Merkley wants America to convert to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 and pursue a Keep it in the Ground policy to end new coal and oil extraction leases on public land. He said Oregonians are feeling the impacts of climate change already.

“The pine beetles are doing very well with warmer winters, and our trees are doing poorly. The forest fires are doing very well, and our forests not so well as a result,” he said.

He said Oregon oyster growers have to artificially change seawater acidity because the Pacific Ocean “has become so acidic that it kills the baby oysters, which we’ve never had in human history before.”

On trade, Merkley said American companies following minimum wage laws and environmental standards can be pushed out of business when they compete against companies in countries like China, which aren’t following the same rules. Merkley has introduced legislation to require trade agreements mandate basic wage and sustainability standards.

“China today is not recognizable from China 20 years ago. They have bullet trains spreading across the entire country. How many bullet trains does America have? They have new metro systems in city after city. How many new metro systems are there in the United States? They are eating our lunch,” Merkley said.

Merkley also sounded an alarm about a move by some senators to give the president the power to declare war, with no sunset. Merkley said that would be a complete inversion of the duty the Founding Fathers gave Congress in the Constitution. He said he’s pushing an alternative plan including a sunset period on the authority given to the president, and requiring the president to obtain congressional approval to wage war in any country outside of Iraq or Afghanistan.

In his meeting with the editorial board, Merkley said the calls he’s received suggest his constituents are 99-to-1 in favor of net neutrality. He said it’s a critical issue for small businesses, which can’t compete with larger businesses if their web pages load too slowly. He said he was glad the Senate voted in favor of net neutrality, and he hopes the House follows suit.

He also spoke about his fight to get Oregon farmers’ priorities into the Farm Bill, and his push for more collaborative groups involving both timber industry and environmental leaders in decisions about how to thin the federal forests.

“If we can expand that model, I think it can be one of the best antidotes to the timber wars of the past,” he said.

Merkley was born in Myrtle Creek, the son of a millwright who worked in a Riddle lumber mill. The family later relocated to Multnomah County.


Accidents
breaking
Roseburg teen dies in Dixonville crash

A Roseburg teen died Tuesday after a car crash in Dixonville, according to police.

Elizabeth Williams, 18, was pronounced dead at the scene after police say a 2008 Toyota Yaris driven by Shannon Carrie Ann Mello, 22, of Myrtle Creek, left the road in the 200 block of South Deer Creek Road.

Douglas County Fire District No. 2 firefighters extricated three of the five passengers.

Christopher Smith, 16, and Kevin Lunsburg, 21, both of Roseburg, were taken to CHI Mercy Medical Center.

Smith was transported to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland and was in critical condition as of Wednesday morning, according to a hospital spokesman.

Lunsburg was transported to PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield. His condition has not been released.

Antonio Donte Denino, 21, was uninjured.

Mello’s condition was not released.

Douglas County Sheriff’s Office deputies are investigating the crash.

More to come.


Why two emergency alerts were sent out

Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management mistakenly sent out a civil emergency alert to western Oregonians’ phones and televisions Tuesday.

Within 20 minutes, a second alert was sent saying there was a drinking water emergency for the Salem area. It linked to the city of Salem’s website, but it had crashed earlier in the evening and was still down.

Cory Grogan, spokesman for the emergency agency, said the initial wireless alert was sent without the proper information for the public to act. The wireless alert, sent to cellphones, contained just a generic message.

City spokesman Kenny Larson said the state agency sent the first alert on the city’s behalf, but it wasn’t precisely the same message the city provided.

The first alert said:

“Emergency Alert: Civil Emergency in this area until 11:28PM PDT Prepare for Action OEM,1,OR”

The alert was sent far beyond the area affected by the city of Salem’s recent water advisory, with members of the public up and down the Willamette Valley reporting that they received the alert.

Officials say they are working to understand why the initial alert was sent out without proper messaging.

The emergency management office issued a statement about the alert Tuesday night:

“The alert, which was requested by the City of Salem to alert local residents about a drinking water advisory, defaulted to ‘civil emergency’ verbiage. This was a technology issue which OEM is currently working to learn how and why it happened. Subsequently, a revised/corrected alert was sent to provide appropriate information.”

The statement continued: “OEM understands that the default message caused concern among residents and is working to learn the issues to be corrected.”

Yamhill County officials tried to assure residents that they were not affected by the water quality alert. “This likely occurred due to some Yamhill County residences having rural Salem addresses,” a notice from the county said, which also asked residents to not call 911 or Yamhill County dispatch.

The Marion County Sheriff’s Office issued a similar statement on Twitter urging residents not to call 911 regarding the alert.

The emergency management office issued a statement about the alert Tuesday night:

“The alert, which was requested by the City of Salem to alert local residents about a drinking water advisory, defaulted to ‘civil emergency’ verbiage. This was a technology issue which OEM is currently working to learn how and why it happened. Subsequently, a revised/corrected alert was sent to provide appropriate information.”

The statement continued: “OEM understands that the default message caused concern among residents and is working to learn the issues to be corrected.”

Yamhill County officials tried to assure residents that they were not affected by the water quality alert. “This likely occurred due to some Yamhill County residences having rural Salem addresses,” a notice from the county said, which also asked residents to not call 911 or Yamhill County dispatch.

The Marion County Sheriff’s Office issued a similar statement on Twitter urging residents not to call 911 regarding the alert.