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Wyden agenda includes mental health, worker assistance

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By PETER WONG
Oregon Capital Bureau

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden has laid out a relatively modest agenda as he heads into a second full cycle as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Though control of the House had not been determined when he spoke with reporters, the Oregon Democrat apparently anticipated a Republican takeover when he laid out some of his committee priorities for 2023.

He said he would continue to work on expanding access to mental health services, restraining health care costs, and modernizing assistance and retraining for workers whose jobs are affected by international trade.

Wyden, 73, was reelected Nov. 8 to a fifth full term in the Senate, where he will rank third in seniority among Democrats after Dianne Feinstein of California and Patty Murray of Washington. Feinstein is up for election in 2024, when she will be 91; Murray just won her sixth term.

Wyden spoke on a conference call from Washington, D.C., where Congress is in a post-election session while Democrats retain majorities in both chambers. Republicans wrested a thin majority from Democrats in the House when the 118th Congress starts Jan. 3, but Democrats kept their majority in the Senate.

He emphasized his cooperation with Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, the committee’s top Republican, in crafting some mental-health provisions that got into federal gun legislation (S. 2938) signed by Biden on June 25. Congress was prompted to act after mass shootings May 14 in Buffalo, New York, where 10 Blacks died in a supermarket, and May 24, when 19 children and two adults died at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

“This is going to be a question of whether Republicans will cooperate so we can have bipartisan support,” Wyden said of the general goals he laid out. “He and I have shown we are interested in working in a bipartisan way.”

Mental health focus

Wyden has been critical of some insurance companies for evading a 2008 federal requirement for parity of mental health and physical health benefits.

Wyden and Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith have introduced legislation to crack down on inaccurate health care provider listings known as “ghost networks,” and create stronger enforcement standards to protect those seeking mental health care.

“Too often, Americans who need affordable mental health care hit a dead end when they try to find a provider that’s covered by their insurance,” Wyden said in a follow-up statement. “Ghost networks mean that the lists of mental health providers in insurance company directories are almost useless.

“This legislation will create real accountability and consequences for insurance companies that refuse to do the necessary work of keeping provider directories up to date.”

Wyden also wants to build on spending for mental health services during the coronavirus pandemic by Medicaid, the joint federal-state program of health insurance for low-income people. (The Oregon Health Plan has 1.4 million recipients, about a third of the state’s population.)

He said he wants to promote public-private partnerships of the kind embodied in the $425 million donation by Steve and Connie Ballmer that enabled the University of Oregon to buy the former Concordia University campus in Portland. The Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health is set to start up in 2023.

“It is a landmark approach in terms of behavioral health,” he said.

Wyden also wants to extend a price cap on insulin. Federal legislation this summer capped the cost at $35 monthly for Medicare recipients, but not for others as Wyden wanted.

As for aid to workers adversely affected by trade, Wyden said he wants to modernize assistance that the federal government offers under the Trade Expansion Act, first passed in 1962 and renewed since.

“In an economy that is changing as rapidly as ours, people need programs that allow them to move quickly in areas where they can train for high-wage, high-skill jobs,” he said. “In a lot of parts of this country, it’s not possible to get that kind of information today.”

Oregon ranked 18th among the states with $29.6 billion in exports, and 26th with $22.7 billion in imports, during 2021.

Since Kate Brown became governor in February 2015, Oregon exports have risen 49%, the sixth largest increase in exports in the nation during that period. During the pandemic, Oregon was one of only six states in the country to see positive export growth between 2019 and 2020. Nearly 6,000 Oregon companies export internationally, and 83,000 Oregon jobs are supported by exports.

 

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