The federal government needs to do more to help the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center recruit and retain health care professionals, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, said Friday at a town hall meeting at Umpqua Community College.
DeFazio spoke about a range of healthcare topics including the Affordable Care Act, Medicare for All and the problems that led to the closure of the VA’s emergency department. He was joined onstage by the directors of the Roseburg VA and Mercy Medical Center, along with other local healthcare leaders.
Prior to the town hall, DeFazio visited The News-Review, where he spoke about the recent entrance of Republican candidate Alek Skarlatos to the race for the congressional seat he holds.
“I recognize his heroism in the terrorist incident on the train. I applaud his third-place finish in Dancing with the Stars. I’m not very good at that. But representing the Fourth District of Oregon in the United States Congress, those aren’t exactly stellar qualifications,” he said. “It’s a very complicated job.”
He said he’s in a senior position and that means he can do a lot for his district.
“For someone to come along whose experience is not at all relevant and think that they could better represent the Fourth District I think is a very big leap,” he said.
DeFazio has held the seat for more than 30 years. He serves a divided district, one of few purple districts in the country. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won the district by just 554 votes over President Trump in the 2016 election, while DeFazio held onto his seat with 62,000 more votes than his Republican challenger Art Robinson.
At Friday’s town hall, DeFazio said Americans need to improve on the Affordable Care Act and have a serious debate about Medicare for All. He said Republicans have attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act but haven’t proposed a replacement.
“The day that the health care act is repealed, 21 million Americans would lose their insurance, 450,000 here in Oregon,” he said. And the insurance of 133 million Americans with pre-existing conditions would be at risk, he said.
“We’re really at a very critical point regarding health care here in the United States of America. It’s going to be an ongoing and major issue and it’s really important down here in Douglas County,” DeFazio said.
Asked by an audience member if he supports Medicare for All, DeFazio noted he co-sponsored the Medicare for All bill. Medicare has issues, but its overhead costs are 3% compared with 26% for private insurance, he said.
“We could do away with an awful lot of bureaucracy. Next time you go see your personal physician, ask ‘em how many people they have on staff to deal with billing,” he said.
The directors of Mercy and the Roseburg VA said a key struggle is the recruitment and retention of healthcare professionals.
DeFazio said the VA Central Office should do more to help the local VA provide incentives that could bring medical staff here and convince them to stay.
“There are tools that we should and could be able to access to help the VA recruit here locally,” DeFazio said.
During his meeting with The News-Review, DeFazio said the Trump administration is pushing very hard for privatizing the VA.
“I have yet to find a veterans group that supports that idea,” he said. “We need targeted care at our veterans facilities and most veterans or many veterans want to seek care in an environment where they understand the unique needs of the veterans and where they’re with other veterans.”
Roseburg VA Director Keith Allen said at the town hall that the hospital had to shut down its emergency room this month, several months ahead of a predicted December closure, because some lab technicians quit in July.
It’s been downsized to a daytime, five-day-a-week urgent care.
“It wasn’t something that we just did on a whim. It was something we did because we could not provide safe care,” he said.
Under the newly implemented Mission Act, veterans can access urgent care in the community, but it has to be in-network. Currently, the only in-network urgent care in Douglas County is in Canyonville, and it doesn’t offer weekend hours.
Allen said he’s working to hire replacements so he can open the urgent care seven days a week.
Mercy Director Kelly Morgan said the key to recruiting and retaining medical personnel is to offer training to local people who want to stay here. He said a proposed Allied Health College, which has already received two-thirds of the necessary funding from the state and city governments, would provide the needed workers for both hospitals.
“We think this is one of the best things we could possibly do, not only to help the economy but also really solve our issue for access for the residents of Douglas County as well as for rural Oregon,” he said.
Morgan also said the Affordable Care Act ensured coverage for many local people who didn’t have it before.
“From the hospital’s perspective and from the doctor’s perspective, the Affordable Care Act was the best thing that ever happened to us,” he said.
Without it, a lot of people came to the emergency department, couldn’t pay for it and the hospital wrote off millions of dollars in bills each year. That doesn’t happen anymore, he said.
With students getting ready to return to school, community members should prepare to see an increase in school buses, pedestrians and bicyclists on the road.
On Monday, students in the Winston-Dillard, Glide, Days Creek and Elkton School districts, as well as several private schools, will be going back to school. All other schools in the county will start the following week.
“We’re prepared for new riders,” Roseburg Public Schools Transportation Supervisor Denny Austin said. “Kindergarteners will probably have a passport or some sort of travel voucher that is pinned to their coat or on a lanyard around their neck. For the newest riders, we take some extra care.”
Parents are encouraged to have students at the bus stop five minutes before the bus is scheduled to arrive.
One day a year, school districts in Oregon complete a bus passed survey, measuring the amount of times motorists illegally pass school buses that are stopped with flashing red lights. According to the Roseburg survey, school buses that were stopped to pick up and drop off students were passed by vehicles 50 to 60 times — in one day.
“That’s something to be very concerned about,” Austin said. “That 50 to 60 times in one day. If you took that times the 176 days that we’re in school, that’s a very big number.”
Vehicles must stop across all lanes of traffic, unless there’s an unpaved median or barrier. This means on five-lane street, such as Northeast Stephens Street or Diamond Lake Boulevard, all traffic must stop when a bus is stopped with lights flashing.
“It seems to me there’s always this hesitation of people on the opposite direction, a couple of lanes over, of ‘Do I stop, do I not stop?’ and legally they have to stop,” Roseburg Public Schools Superintendent Jared Cordon said. “When they see those lights and that arm come out, regardless of whether you’re behind the bus or heading toward the bus to stop.”
School bus company First Student has several safety tips listed on its website for parents and students, including the need to be aware of moving traffic, leave on time to get to the bus stop, pay attention, don’t get on or off a moving bus and hold on to the bus handrail.
“Students are responsible for staying at the stop,” Austin said. “Not wandering onto private property or collecting a bouquet of flowers out of somebody’s yard.”
Representatives from school bus company First Student in Roseburg and Tri City did not return calls by The News-Review.
Throughout the summer, bus drivers underwent training and all buses were safety tested. Austin confirmed the company is still looking for additional drivers in Roseburg.
This year an additional concern in Roseburg is road construction in front of high school and near Winchester Elementary School.
“Everybody’s going to have to play well together,” Austin said.
There will also be more children walking and riding bicycles to school. It is important those students use designated crosswalks and traffic signals, make eye contact with drivers before crossing and wear reflective material.
Blue Zones Project Umpqua has been encouraging more students to walk and bike to school. Calls to the organization asking for additional safety tips and inquiries into events planned to start the school year were not returned.
Roseburg City Council is scheduled to vote on approving a road map to address the current housing crisis at its meeting Monday.
If approved, the vote will shape the way the city approaches the housing crisis in order to accommodate the forecasted population growth for the next 20 years.
Councilors will vote on adopting the recently completed Housing Needs Analysis to the city’s Comprehensive Plan. Stuart Cowie, the city’s community development director, presented the report’s findings to the Planning Commission on Aug. 5, which it approved.
The HNA identified the areas of weakness in future development and included a list of potential solutions to the housing crisis. According to the analysis, Roseburg must grow by 2,678 housing units to accommodate the increasing population over the next 20 years.
If approved, the HNA would not enact any new policies, but instead, offer possible solutions the city can try in order to grow its number of housing units, Cowie said. Potential solutions include streamlining Roseburg’s development process and creating policies that bolster the development of affordable housing.
“It’s just important for people to realize the adoption of this is not necessarily going to be what implements any of these policies,” Cowie said. “It provides the framework for us to be able to move forward.”
The city was awarded funding from the Department of Land Conservation and Development to fund the development of the HNA. EcoNorthwest was contracted to perform the HNA and Kris Smock Consulting performed a Homeless Population Study.
“What it’s trying to answer is, over a 20-year period, does Roseburg have enough buildable land to accommodate the forecast for population growth?” said Beth Goodman, of EcoNorthwest. “And, is Roseburg providing opportunity for development of housing that’s affordable at all income levels?”
The study found the city has enough land for the needed growth, though certain aspects are not ideal. Complications such as market trends, severely sloped land and affordable housing barriers complicate the issue.
Of the new units, 60% must be single-family detached homes, 10% must be single-family attached housing, such as townhouses, and 30% must be multifamily units, such as apartment buildings.
Roseburg has enough land for developing single-family detached and attached units, though it is pinched for space for apartment buildings, Goodman said.
Some of the policy suggestions in the Housing Needs Analysis suggest allowing for a wider range of types of housing developments in Roseburg’s existing zones, such as tiny houses, or encouraging the development of multifamily housing units in commercial zones.
Ben Tatone, owner of Roseburg Homes Realty, spoke at the public hearing Aug. 5 and said he believes some of the policy suggestions in the HNA could deter developers from building units in Roseburg.
“I think the city staff is genuinely well-intended with trying to create policies that promote affordable housing. There were just some things in that housing analysis that were contrary to that,” Tatone said.
The HNA outlines the exact types of housing units that the city needs to accommodate the population, however, Tatone said he believes the market demands for mostly single-family detached homes — meaning developers will likely not want to build multi-family homes.
“But if, in fact, they become more restrictive, then there will be even less (homes) built, there’ll be even less available — and that will drive prices up not down,” Tatone said.
Another concern lies with the sloped land being difficult and expensive to develop on.
“Developing on a hillside is generally more expensive for a lot of reasons,” Goodman said. “Those areas are going to be very difficult to develop and to service because they are either on steep slopes or on the other side of the ridge where you don’t have the water service.”
One solution to this problem is the Urban Growth Boundary swap, which would exchange the sloped land within the boundary for flat, more developable land outside the boundary.
Goodman said the housing crisis is not exclusive to Roseburg, and that similar problems are happening across the country.
“Roseburg is one of our smaller mid-sized cities in a rural area that has similar problems as many of our other cities across Oregon,” Goodman said. “Increasing housing costs, where we haven’t seen income increasing as much, and this is true across the country. Incomes have simply grown very slowly.”
City council meets at 7 p.m. Monday and a public hearing will be held during the meeting for residents to speak on the topic before voting.