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“The day that the health care act is repealed, 21 million Americans would lose their insurance, 450,000 here in Oregon,” he said.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.