PORT ORFORD Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, told the audience at a recent town hall meeting that as Oregons first new senator in 30 years, hed pledged to hold an open community meeting in every county every year.

He said a man once told him he thought citizens had to pay $1,000 at dinners to be able to see a United States senator.

He said the man was even more bothered that he had to wear a crumb-bum to those dinners. Wyden said no one would ever have to wear a cummerbund just to be able to see him.

He asked how many there were attending their first town hall meeting with him.

He joked that his usual procedure at town hall meetings was to give a two-and-a-half hour speech. He said he was only kidding and opened the meeting to any and all questions.

Health Care

Wyden said he and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Oregon, have introduced a $28 billion budget bill for the uninsured.

He said most of the uninsured are not unemployed, but work for small businesses that want to cover their employees but cant.

He said he hopes to see action this month on that bill and the one for prescription drugs.

Millions of Americans are not in the health care tent, said Wyden, with 44 million uninsured. We have to get everyone under the tent for the basics.

A nine-year cancer survivor said she cant get her insurance company to pay for her cancer treatments because she refused chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Wyden said he would like to get her into a research program and asked her to give her phone number to his staff.

Another citizen said nursing homes are feeling the pinch of a shortage of nurses.

The pay issue drives the crunch, said Wyden.

He said nurses go into nursing because they care about people, but then find they cant pay the rent with what they earn.

We have to find solutions to the pay issue, he said.

Wyden told another citizen that he was against a bill that would turn Medicare from a benefit program to a contribution program.

He said the bill would have Medicare send people checks for health care, which they would then seek out any way they could.

If the checks dont cover the treatment, patients would have no other recourse.

He said with the current system, people at least get a basic set of health care benefits.

Prescription Drug Costs

One citizen said, Medicare is not always a good bargainer, when it comes to securing the best prices on prescription drugs.

That issue takes most of my time, said Wyden.

He said the bill hes cosponsored will soon be introduced. It will use the bargaining power of the federal employees health plan, the same one the senators use.

He said some people feel the country cant afford to cover prescription drugs for its citizens.

I say this country cant afford not to cover prescription drugs.

He said drugs are paid for when citizens are hospitalized, but not on an outpatient basis.

Because of that, he said, a doctor put his patient in the hospital for seven weeks so he could receive drugs to cure a leg infection.

That cost maybe $60,000, when the medication would have cost about $800, he said.

Curry County Commissioner Lucie La Bont said the county budget is being impacted by health insurance costs that are still rising. She wondered what was being done about that on the national level.

Wyden said, We have to recognize that this country will never get a rational health care system without getting everyone under the cover.

He said currently, people who are covered are paying the emergency bills for those who arent.

Social Security

A citizen said only the Senate can keep the president from turning Social Security into individual retirement accounts by Christmas.

Congress will look at it in a very deliberate way, said Wyden. Its not going to go through like grease through a goose. There will be no rush to judgment.

He said young people dont believe they will ever see Social Security checks.

President Franklin Roosevelt designed Social Security to be a safety net, said Wyden, and most people believe that part of it should never be touched.

Above the safety net level, however, he said, some groups want a choice in investment to allow higher yields.

Wyden said he wants to make sure the Social Security fund is never used to balance the federal budget. He said that would be a bipartisan ripoff.

He said that the federal budget may soon have its first real surplus. Those declared in other years have included the Social Security fund.

Church/State Separation

The founding fathers got it right, said Wyden, with religious pluralism and tolerance for all faiths.

They didnt want the government to establish a religion.

A citizen said they meant the government should stay out of religion, not that religion should stay out of the government and public life.

Wyden said he would vote against anything that interfered with voluntary prayer in the schools. He said students have plenty of opportunity every day to pray privately in schools. Thats as it should be.

A man said rights come from God, and those rights are being abridged now. When God is taken out of the equation, tyranny usually follows.

Wyden said, God is very much in my equation.

Information Technology

A citizen asked if there had been any progress in moving rural Oregon into the information age.

Wyden said hed helped get broadband technology to Lakeview. He also said he held a conference on rural information technology and telecommunications in Eugene.

Given the snowy weather, he expected about 20 people to show up. He said 325 attended, from all over the state. As a result, his office put out a book on the issue for towns with less than 10,000 people.

Our job is for people in rural Oregon to have access to education, information technology, roads, affordable energy and health care, he said. Thats real economic development.

Railroad Bill

Several retired railroad workers asked Wyden to cosponsor Senate Bill 697. One said they have 71 senators on board, but need more cosponsors.

Wyden said there have been times when more than 71 senators were wrong about something.

In this case, he said, if the bill goes to the floor in anything close to its current form, he will vote for it, but he will not cosponsor it.

One man said he was told by Wydens staff that the senator didnt have time to study the bill.

Wyden said if a staff member said that, it was some kind of slip-up, and not true. He called the bill extraordinarily important and said he would vote for it.

The Federal Government

A citizen objected to practices of the federal government, like seizing assets before a person is convicted in court, or requiring banks to report unusually large deposits to the federal government.

I support privacy rights, said Wyden, but no law empowers like being informed.

He said most of the privacy notices being sent out by banks now are being thrown away by consumers without being read.

He said consumers must respond and opt out if they dont want their financial and medical records to be released.

He said the way it should work is that consumers should have to opt in if they want those two items made public.

Commercial Fishing

Brookings commercial fisherman Linda Brown thanked Wyden for helping to secure disaster relief funds for groundfish fishermen.

She said fishermen are using the education grants, and, coupled with the boat buyback bill, the relief is a major benefit that will help solidify fishing families.

I wouldnt let the government drag its feet anymore, said Wyden.

He said the National Marine Fisheries Service sat on the relief for six months. Wyden said he decided to hold constant hearings on it until the money was freed up. He said he will work to pass the buyback bill too.

Judicial Appointments

Wyden said hed been thinking about what the standard should be for nominees to courts.

Is it appropriate to turn down a judge because you disagree with him philosophically? he said. Im not sure it is.

I hope the president makes it easy for us by sending people near the middle of the political spectrum and well-qualified.

He said he would judge nominees by their philosophies only to see if they would follow the law. He would not vote against nominees just because they disagreed with him.


A veteran from Bandon said he disagreed with Wyden on some issues, but complimented the senator on what hed done for veterans in the area.

Wyden said there is still a lot of work to do, with a graying population, including veterans, needing health care.

He said that is why he is against the presidents tax cut proposal.

If the projected budget surplus doesnt materialize, he said, there wont be enough money for veterans.

In conclusion, Wyden said that while he does occasionally muff issues, the input he gets from town hall meetings helps him make the right decisions.

On my watch, were going to do it at the grass-roots level, he said. Were going to throw the doors of government open.