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Navigating the health-insurance marketplace? Help's available

Open Enrollment can be 'terrifying,' but grants, subsidies allow for free advice

With all of the health insurance options available to consumers during the current Open Enrollment period, it’s understandable that folks might appreciate some guidance in finding the plan that’s right for them.

That’s where experts like Victoria Bramley and Greg Osborne come in.

Bramley and Osborne are both local, veteran health insurance consultants who work for agencies that have been blessed by the government to help people who are confused, confounded and even frightened by the process of purchasing health insurance.

“It is terrifying to people, and what can happen is that some people will just shut down,” says Bramley, a planner and insurance consultant for The Insurance Store Inc., a Lake Oswego-based company that helps people choose from a wide array of available health care plans.

The Insurance Store is an authorized and certified entity that works alongside the Federally Facilitated Marketplace (FFM), encouraging clients to reach out for answers to help navigate the FFM system. It’s one of many “storefront” operations around the state designed to help people who are shopping for a health care plan to narrow their options and guide them to a plan that’s affordable.

Her role is not to sell anything, Bramley says, but rather to offer everything.

“For us, it’s more about learning what a person’s situation is and telling them what’s available to them,” she says. “We get paid by a government entity or by a private carrier, not by the customer.”

Often, Bramley directs customers to consumer tax credits that can save them hundreds of dollars a year in insurance costs. Of the approximately 107,000 Oregonians who enrolled through HealthCare.gov for 2015, for example, more than 77,000 received a premium tax credit averaging $199 per month.

By purchasing a plan, Bramley says, consumers can also avoid the non-enrollment fines required by the national Affordable Care Act.

“It doesn’t matter if you come from extreme poverty or extreme wealth,” Bramley says. “We just give an overview of what to expect in the FFM, so people are not afraid.”

Osborne is an agent with Modern Insurance Marketing Inc. in Wilsonville, one of 24 individual agencies and community organizations authorized by the state Department of Consumer and Business Services to serve as drop-in enrollment centers. The role of the grant-funded program is to help people shop for and enroll in a health insurance plan that’s right for them, Osborne says, and to help them access financial help to pay for it via HealthCare.gov.

“In Clackamas County, nearly 8 percent — or approximately 31,000 — of our residents do not have health insurance coverage,” Osborne says. “A lot of people just don’t really understand insurance, so it helps to have someone face-to-face you can talk to. We’re here to help them through the process.”

During last year’s Open Enrollment period, many consumers waited on the phone for long periods on hold, or faced myriad online obstacles in trying to get answers to questions about available health care plans. Osborne says the state responded by sponsoring agents in brick-and-mortar locations who can schedule appointments and take walk-up customers who are seeking answers to their health care questions.

“Having an actual physical location was one of the criteria,” he says. “We can help people with the options in their local market. That helps narrow the focus for them, because we’re familiar with the hospitals and providers in their network.”

Advisors also are available for seniors seeking answers about Medicare, and for business owners who are finding ways to make it easy for their employees to enroll. A complete list of the state’s agency and community partners is available at OregonHealthcare.gov or by calling the Oregon Health Insurance Marketplace at 1-855-268-3767.

“We’ve heard from Oregonians that free, in-person help can be extremely valuable in finding the right coverage,” says Patrick Allen, director of the Department of Consumer and Business Services. “We are pleased to be partnering with agents and community organizations around the state to offer this important assistance.”

Bramley says she speaks to folks covering all demographics. One segment is seniors who “tend to hide in the community” instead of wading through all the confusing options. Another is young adults who have never had insurance and aren’t sure whether or not they need it.

“They’re saying, ‘I can’t afford it. I’ve never paid for health insurance. Maybe I should just pay the penalty, because the penalty costs less,’” she says. “Well, until you know what all your options are, how do you know?”

Bramley says she welcomes those questions and is always ready to provide the answer that best suits individual situations.

“Tell us your situation and we’ll narrow down your options,” she says. “There’s no pressure. If we can’t help you, we’ll tell you where to go to get help.”

For both Bramley and Osborne, Open Enrollment has meant longer hours in the office. But both say it’s an exciting time to be in the insurance business.

“This is the one time of year when everybody has a chance to move to a different plan,” Osborne says. “It’s changed our business model, but it’s really helped our business because more people are seeking insurance and it’s easier to get enrolled.”

Bramley agrees.

“I’m proud of what we’re doing, and I’m passionate about it,” she says. “This is my community, and my reputation means everything to me. When you love what you do, it’s not work. The gratitude you get? That’s the reward.”

Contact Phil Favorite at [email protected].

Resources

• Victoria Bramley

The Insurance Store Inc.

252 A Street, Suite 2000, Lake Oswego

503-693-1186

[email protected]

• Greg Osborne

Modern Insurance Marketing Inc.

29174 S.W. Town Center Loop West, Suite 102, Wilsonville

503-682-3323

[email protected]

• Insurance Lounge

4859 Meadows Road, Suite 155, Lake Oswego

503-232-9400

insurancelounge.com/retail-location-lake-oswego/

Important dates for Open Enrollment

Nov. 1: Open Enrollment started — the first day you could enroll in a 2016 insurance plan through the Health Insurance Marketplace. Coverage can start as soon as Jan. 1, 2016.

Dec. 15: Last day to enroll in or change plans for new coverage that would start on Jan. 1, 2016.

Jan. 1, 2016: 2016 coverage starts for those who enrolled or changed plans by Dec. 15.

Jan. 15, 2016: Last day to enroll in or change plans for new coverage that would start on Feb. 1, 2016.

Jan. 31, 2016: 2016 Open Enrollment ends. Enrollments or changes between Jan. 16 and Jan. 31 take effect March 1, 2016.

Note: If you don’t enroll in a 2016 health insurance plan by Jan. 31, 2016, you can’t enroll unless you qualify for a Special Enrollment Period — 60 days following certain life events that involve a change in family status (for example, marriage or birth of a child) or loss of other health coverage. Job-based plans must provide a special enrollment period of 30 days.

Source: healthcare.gov

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County continues tobacco licensing talks

While hosting public hearings on the prospect of initiating a license structure for tobacco retailers, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners also discussed increasing the minimum age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21.

The board first discussed the concept of retail licensing in late September, with reducing cigarette sales to minors the dominant concern. In Multnomah County, the rate of sale to minors is nearly 32 percent.

Board members had hoped the Oregon Legislature would address the issue.

“Unfortunately, it did not happen, and that is why I believe it is incumbent upon us to do something locally,” board Chair Deboarah Kafoury said in September. “I believe an ordinance we put together will be something the state can and will pick up. This is something that is a big step for our community.”

Oregon is one the few states that does not require retailers to be licensed to sell tobacco products, including cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

To gain public feedback, the commissioners held two public hearings on Tuesday, Oct. 20, one in Portland and one in Gresham.

At the Portland hearing, Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, explained why the licensing did not see approval during the state’s session.

“The issue (is) preemption,” Monnes Anderson said, meaning if the state takes action down the road, it would overrule what the county implemented. “A number of legislators feel preemption at the state level should be required. We had a standoff basically with the stakeholders and opponents to the bill.

“I am very passionate about wanting to (prevent) youth from using tobacco,” she added. “Licensing is also paramount so we can have a good enforcement structure.”

Licensing was considered with a fee somewhere between $350 and $600. Support from the plan emerged from the hearing testimony.

“Oregon is one of only a handful of states that does not have tobacco retail licensing,” noted Charles Tauman, Tobacco Free Coalition of Oregon president. “And it has the largest rate of sales.”

Retail shops should be able to easily pay a licensing fee around $250 to $350, as shops profit that much per day in tobacco sales, he added.

Tia Henderson, research manager for Upstream Public Health, said when they discussed the issue with retailers, three out of four said they would raise their costs to cover the fee. Henderson said this is a positive because youths are typically sensitive to costs. If tobacco products become more expensive, youths will be less likely to purchase them.

Ben Hoffman, a doctor at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, argued for the increased legal tobacco purchase age. Hoffman said amid high schoolers, there will always be 18-year-old students who can purchase cigarettes or other tobacco products.

“At 21, social circles shift to bars,” he said. “If we don’t have tobacco in cohorts under 21, it’s much less likely kids will be able to get it under 21. We know this works because when we raised the legal age to 21, drinking by high school seniors decreased by 50 percent. As we think about developing these common sense policies ... we need to make sure the interests of kids is kept in mind.”

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found three out of four adults favor increasing the minimum age to 21, but currently Hawaii is the only state with the increased purchase age.

During the hearings, Plaid Pantry representatives were the only speakers to oppose county regulations.

“We think that such policies need to be done at a state level,” said Jonathan Polonsky, chief operating officer. “There must be a uniform set of rules and regulations, not a patchwork of different regulations county by county or city by city.”

The commissioners said no decision has been made yet, and the board will continue discussing the issue throughout the county. The next proposals are scheduled during City Council meetings in Fairview on Wednesday, Nov. 4, and Wood Village on Monday, Nov. 9.

If approved, planning would begin in February with the program launching as early as July 2016.

[email protected]

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Food safety concerns at David Douglas High School lead to whistleblower lawsuit

An ailing head cook has led to a whistleblower lawsuit against David Douglas School District, according to documents filed Wednesday, Aug. 12, in Multnomah County Circuit Court.

The lawsuit brings up concerns of food safety at David Douglas High School, where approximately 3,000 kids attend school.

Two food service workers and a special education assistant filed the suit against the small east Portland school district alleging that officials did nothing when they brought up concerns about Head Cook Kim Fragall’s increasingly erratic behavior, which they linked to her worsening health. The workers — second cook Deborah Rowley, cook’s helper Julie Passantino-Symonds and Special Education Instructional Assistant Trisha Williams — further allege that Fragall retaliated against them for bringing up their concerns with management. When they told administrators of the retaliation, including Superintendent Don Grotting, “there was no further response from DDSD,” reads the complaint.

The plaintiffs, represented by Portland attorney Mark Morrell, are asking the court for $250,000 each in non-economic damages, plus attorney’s fees.

The plaintiffs say the retaliation started after an April 2012 meeting of kitchen staff in which they told district nutritionist Jody Taylor and an unidentified union representative about their concerns of Fragall’s worsening condition and its effects on food safety. They say the head cook frequently complained of pain, would take long breaks, and would not work full days “obviously exhausted and in pain,” the suit reads. The complaint alleges Fragall’s mental state was such that she would forget how long food had been cooking and at what temperature; forget to order ingredients or order too much; fail to notice health and sanitation violations in food preparation and storage; and make uncharacteristically demeaning comments to staff.

The issues appear to have come to a head for the plaintiffs during the spring when “rumors were” that they would be permanently reassigned to North kitchen from their post at South kitchen.

Finally, the lawsuit claims that staff “have noticed a marked reduction in the number of students eating at the cafeteria. Many students have simply refused to eat the food served at South.”

A David Douglas spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment on the allegations.


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541-285-3614

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Agent Orange likely culprit in man's health saga

Forest Grove veteran blames chemical defoliant used in Vietnam War

War has many casualties, and the Vietnam War was no exception. But many years beyond the fighting in Southeast Asia, a chemical defoliant used by the U.S. military to clear jungles for warfare is killing veterans from the inside out.

And as a 63-year-old Forest Grove man will tell you, the government has few answers for the questions of those allegedly exposed to Agent Orange.

In 1997, Louis Lines was a relatively fit, happily married father in his 16th year working for Southern Pacific Railroad. Five years later, he was 100 pounds heavier and suffering from Crohn’s disease and an enlarged heart. Lines was also preparing for a bout of chemotherapy to combat hairy cell leukemia.

“I’m a firm believer in karma. From high school, to the U.S. Army, through the railroad, I’ve never been in trouble for anything in my life. So I’m lying there in the hospital thinking to myself, ‘what in the heck did I do to deserve this?’”

To understand where he was, it’s important to learn how he got there.

Lines was born in Hillsboro on June 17, 1952. He grew up in Forest Grove and graduated from Forest Grove High School in 1971. At a time when many were either going to or returning from Vietnam, Lines was drafted into the army, sent to Fort Lewis military facility in Washington state and became part of the 3rd Armored Calvary.

From there he went to train at an army base in White Sands, N.M., where — thousands of miles removed from the horrors of the Vietnam War — he was exposed to a chemical he believes has led to a personal war with a variety of health problems five decades later.

Chemical moved through air, water

Agent Orange is one of many herbicides known to have been used in Vietnam. In November 1961, President John F. Kennedy authorized the start of Operation Ranch Hand — the code name for the U.S. Air Force’s herbicide program there — and subsequently kick-started a program whose effects continue to be felt by soldiers who were in the field, troops that remained stateside and even the children of both groups.

Paul Sutton, a Vietnam veteran, past chairman of the Veterans Administration’s National Agent Orange Committee and a nationally recognized expert in the subject, has advocated for veterans and their families since 1977. Based on his research and studies, and contrary to the limited knowledge of exposure by most soldiers in the war itself, “anyone who spent 30 days minimum on the ground in Vietnam was exposed to Agent Orange.”

“As soldiers we didn’t know,” Sutton said. “Guys assumed that if they weren’t around during the application they were fine, but what we’ve learned since is that the chemical moved through the air and water, and also lived well beyond the terrain where it was applied.”

Sutton tells stories of soldiers who spent the entirety of their service in Vietnam at a desk on a military base, but who years later suffered the effects of poisoning traced back to contaminated water dumped from planes during aborted herbicide missions. Some unwitting soldiers used Agent Orange to clean tools. And more recently, tales of woe have involved veterans who never set foot “in country.”

“It’s proving very tough for these reservists, even with a well-rounded [medical] claim, to get it through the system,” Sutton said. “Unfortunately, that’s common for any veteran trying to deal with the VA regarding these types of issues.”

Episodes of blindness

Louis Lines never stepped foot in Vietnam, but in 1997, after building and moving into his dream home in Grants Pass — 23 years after his discharge from the army and two decades into a career with the railroad — he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease affecting the gastrointestinal tract. He spent the next five years coping with pain and discomfort, but in 2002 was forced to have his large intestine removed.

While in the hospital for that operation, doctors informed Lines he had hairy cell leukemia and an enlarged heart. He underwent micro-valve surgery to repair his heart and chemotherapy to address his leukemia. Doctors estimated he likely had no more than six months to live, and told Lines his best course of action was to stay in the hospital and keep as comfortable as possible while awaiting his inevitable demise.

“They wanted me to just sit in bed and push this button until I died, but I was like, ‘no way — if I’m going to die it’s going to be in my house on the mountain.’”

He spent the next three years in a wheelchair due to complications from chemotherapy, packed on weight, suffered occasional episodes of blindness and lost his wife to divorce — a result, he said, of the strain his medical issues put on their relationship. Lines sold his house, moved to LaPine to be near family and began receiving epidural pain medication every 90 days to help him walk.

Eventually the epidurals stopped working and Lines had neuro-stimulators implanted that allowed him to walk. But even as things were looking up, he still dealt with digestive issues. Some doctors couldn’t explain it, Lines said, and others chose not to engage with his situation.

“When you walk into a doctor’s office with an insurance card and cash and they still won’t treat you because they say you’re too high-risk, that really stinks,” he said.

Those issues, along with the price of his medications, led Lines to the VA, where his initial doctor theorized he was a victim of herbicidal poisoning connected to his military training during the Vietnam era.

“He said, ‘this has to be Agent Orange poisoning,’” Lines said, “but VA doctors aren’t the same as VA lawyers, and they sent me a letter that said ‘we don’t owe you anything for anything because you can’t prove it.’”

The truth is, he can’t.

Lines spent the bulk of his time in the Army living and training in tanks in White Sands. There is no documented evidence that Agent Orange was stored or tested there, and while the tanks he worked with were used in Vietnam, he was told they were cleansed of potential Agent Orange contamination prior to their return.

While his physical condition makes a strong case, the burden of proof the government demands when it comes to Operation Ranch Hand simply isn’t there.

‘I wasn’t looking for benefits’

Jennifer Walters, a Texas resident whose husband, John, died in 2000 as a result of apparent Agent Orange poisoning, is an example of one of the many people caught in the wake of the Agent Orange tidal wave.

She spent 10 years trying to get answers from government officials.

Her husband — who in his early 50s was stricken with a kidney disease normally found in small children, a colon issue and a rare form of sarcoma — died less than a year after his initial diagnosis but was never declared a victim of herbicide poisoning in spite of overwhelming evidence.

“I wasn’t looking for benefits. I simply wanted answers and a recognition of his cause of death,” Jennifer Walters said. “It’s very difficult [for veterans and their families] to get help, and when they do, it’s with an understanding that it will only go so far.”

Paul Sutton says that’s commonplace — and suggests answers, if they come, won’t come soon. “It will be long after Vietnam veterans are gone before our government acknowledges this,” he said.

For his part, Lines says he only wants accountability from the government — and maybe a little help for veterans still struggling to cope with something beyond their control.

“I had my large intestine taken out, had a bad heart and got leukemia,” he said. “I went blind and lost the use of my legs. But they said there was no correlation between one and the other.

“I just want them to call it what it is, and maybe give me someone I can talk to about what I’ve gone through.”

Despite his health travails and his stalemate with the VA, things haven’t been all bad for Lines in recent years. Lines moved back to Forest Grove in 2010 and got remarried in 2010 to a woman he’d originally met in 1970 at the now-defunct Hudson House Cannery, which used to operate in Forest Grove.

Louis and Lynette Lines had shared a relationship until she went off to college, and he to the army, in 1971. They reunited at a small church in Gaston nearly 50 years later.

“I look back at my tough times and sometimes wonder why. But I look at meeting my wife, and the 13 years since they told me I’d be dead, and I say ‘that’s my karma,” Lines said.

He insists he’ll face the future with a smile on his face.

“That’s just who I am,” Lines said. “That’s just who I’ve always been.”

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Journalist turned activist promotes changes in health insurance coverage

A journalist turned activist says that it’s more likely that Colorado, not Oregon, will be the first to lead the United States in providing health coverage for everyone.

“We beat you to marijuana and we will beat you to universal health care,” says T.R. Reid, the one-time Washington Post reporter who is now leading a campaign to qualify a financing measure for the 2016 ballot in Colorado.

Reid spoke Saturday at Salem Hospital during a presentation sponsored by the Salem City Club. He also spoke at Linn-Benton Community College in Albany. He also made several appearances in Portland.

Reid is chairman of the Colorado Foundation for Universal Health Care, which proposes a payroll tax on employers and employees to supplement existing funds for health coverage.

Oregon lawmakers have just budgeted $300,000 for a study, which they authorized two years ago, of better ways to pay for health care.

While the national health care overhaul signed by President Barack Obama in 2010 and known as “Obamacare” has taken some steps toward putting the United States on a par with other democracies with advanced economies, Reid says it’s still far short of the ideal of universal coverage for everyone.

“We are not going to get to that destination on a national basis,” he says. “The U.S. Congress is gridlocked and cannot do anything big. The way we are going to get there is state by state.”

He mentioned Canada’s program, which started with government-paid hospital care in 1961 and evolved into universal coverage in 1984. It originated in the province of Saskatchewan after World War II.

Under the 2010 law, any state that offers universal coverage may opt out of the federal requirements. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., authored the provision as a way to encourage state experimentation.

Personal interest

Reid is the author of “The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper and Fairer Health Care.” It was published in 2009, the year after the documentary “Sick Around the World,” made for PBS Frontline. He also took part in a 2012 documentary, “U.S. Health Care: The Good News.”

Reid acknowledges he is not an expert in the field.

“I’m just an ink-stained reporter who got interested in this topic,” he says.

He did so when he was the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Tokyo, where he was initially worried when he had to take his children for medical care. He need not have worried.

“It was an American standard of care; the facilities were fine,” he said. “We did not wait very long. But the really striking thing was the bills — one-20th or one-tenth what you would pay in the United States for the same treatment.”

Japan relies on private doctors and hospitals. Great Britain, where Reid was London bureau chief for the Post, has a National Health Service established in 1948 that provides most care.

As Reid investigated health care in other nations, he spotlighted his quest for relief for an ailing right shoulder he injured in the early 1970s while a seaman in the Navy.

His conclusion: “We are paying vastly more and getting much less than all the other countries like us when it comes to health care. The main answer I get in those other countries is that they see it as a moral obligation. The United States has never seen this obligation like all the other rich countries.”

According to a July 20 compilation by the World Health Organization, based on 2013 data, the United States led with 17.1 percent of its gross domestic product on health spending. Of five other advanced democracies, the range was from 9.1 percent in Great Britain to 11.7 percent in France.

On Obamacare

Reid spent most of his talk about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the official name of the 2010 congressional overhaul, in terms of expanding coverage, restraining costs and other factors.

“It is working better than before,” he said. “But it doesn’t get us to where I think we ought to be. It has expanded coverage much more broadly than what opponents say, but much less than what the White House promised.”

Although some provisions took effect earlier, the law kicked in on Jan. 1, 2014.

While the law has expanded coverage to more than 16 million people, Reid said that’s still about half the intended target of 32 million people. By 2020, an estimated 31 million will still be without coverage, counting 11 million in the nation without immigration documents, who also had been excluded from the initial target.

Some are covered through plans under health insurance exchanges, for which there are federal tax subsidies.

Others are covered through an expansion of Medicaid, the joint federal-state program of health insurance for low-income people. Oregon is among the 30 states that have some form of expansion, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation; 19 states do not, mostly in the South, Great Plains and Mountain West. Exceptions are Maine and Wisconsin. Utah is considering its options.

States will have to share costs of that expansion beginning in 2017, but Reid said it is a fallacy for critics to say that states will have to assume 100 percent. “Congress does not take away entitlements,” he said.

Health care costs, which had been rising annually by two to three times the rate of the Consumer Price Index, have moderated. While costs have still grown, Reid said they rose by just 2 percent in 2014, matching the CPI, and actually fell by just under 1 percent in the first quarter of his year.

However, drug prices are increasing much faster.

“If cost increases level off, I think we have to give some credit to Obamacare,” even if there are other factors involved, Reid said.

Reid said the 2010 law also did some good things, such as put an end to insurance company exclusions for pre-existing medical conditions and arbitrary policy cancellations known as “rescissions.”

It also put an outside limit of 20 percent for administrative costs from premium dollars, down from 30 to 35 percent. But Reid said that’s still far more than the international average of 5 percent, or the 3.8 percent paid by Medicare, the federal program of insurance for those 65 and older and for some people with disabilities.

“Those of us who have looked at other countries believe the (2010) limit is not enough,” he said.

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Silverton Health CEO arrested for public indecency

Woodburn police arrested the president and chief executive officer of Silverton Health Thursday for allegedly masturbating inside his car in the parking lot of the Woodburn Bi-Mart.

Rick Cagen, 64, was charged with one count of public indecency, a class A misdemeanor carrying a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $6,250 fine.

He was taken into custody and transported to the Marion County Correctional Facility in Salem.

According to Jason Horton, a spokesman for the city of Woodburn, police received a call at approximately 9:30 a.m. May 14 from a witness who reported seeing a man masturbating in his car at the Bi-Mart located at 1550 Mount Hood Ave.

Horton said the witness confronted the man and told him he was calling the police. The suspect drove away after the confrontation, but Horton said the witness provided police a license plate number and description of the vehicle.

Horton said police located the vehicle and identified it as being owned by Cagen. Investigators questioned Cagen about the incident in the parkting lot outside the Woodburn Health Center, where he has an office, and took him into custody.

The Woodburn hospital is located at 1475 Mount Hood Ave, across the street from the Bi-Mart.

Horton would not elaborate on what Cagen said during the interview. However, he did say Cagen has no criminal history or record of previous incidents with Woodburn police.

Reached Thursday afternoon, Silverton Health Marketing Communications Director Rita Kester declined to comment on the matter.

"We don't have any information," she said.

Cagen started at Silverton Health in 2010, after a long career in health care administration. He announced his retirement earlier this year, which was to be effective July 1.

Cagen's bail was initially set at $5,000, according to online jail records. His first court appearance was scheduled for 3 p.m. Friday.

Anyone with information on this case is asked to call the Woodburn Police Department at 503-982-2345.

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Lawmakers tackle campaign contribution legislation

SALEM — Gov. Kate Brown testified in late April in support of legislation to cap campaign contributions, which she pushed for when she was secretary of state.

Advocates for campaign finance reform hope that with Brown’s support, they can curb campaign cash in the state, which has repeatedly tried and failed to adopt contribution limits that stick.

Although voters and the Legislature have adopted limits, those were struck down in court.

Oregon is one of six states in the nation with no limits on contributions to candidates’ campaigns, according to the interest group Common Cause, which is lobbying for the contribution limits. Daniel Lewkow, the group’s political director for campaign finance reform in Oregon, said he expects voters to support limits because “we have greater awareness than we ever have of campaign finance issues.”

Many lawmakers also support the limits because they do not want to spend so much time on fundraising, Lewkow said.

‘A better system’

The Legislature does not have authority to limit campaign contributions. One way to change that would be for voters to approve an amendment to Article II of the state Constitution, which covers regulations on elections.

Senate Joint Resolution 5 would refer a constitutional amendment to do just that to voters in the November 2016 general election. Senate Bill 75 would set state campaign contribution limits at the same levels as in federal elections — $2,600 for an individual donor, $5,000 for a political action committee — that would take effect if voters amend the Constitution.

Both bills were heard last week before the Senate Committee on Rules.

Kristen Grainger, communications director for Brown, said the legislation is just a starting point for a conversation about what, if any, limits Oregon should impose on contributions.

“The conversation will be about what is a reasonable limit in Oregon,” Grainger said, adding that the amounts in Senate Bill 75 are “just a starting point for conversation.”

The limits would not stop corporations, unions and other deep-pocketed donors from pouring money into state elections through super PACs and social welfare groups, as they have increasingly done since the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United.

Others were skeptical of the proposal. Senate Republican Leader Sen. Ted Ferrioli (R-John Day) said contribution limits might restrict the ability of businesses to contribute directly to candidates, but they would not rein in the ability of Oregon’s powerful unions to campaign for candidates and spend unlimited amounts on elections via outside groups.

“When somebody talks about getting the big money out of politics, they’re talking about the other guy’s money, not their money,” Ferrioli said.

Ferrioli said Oregon took a different approach than other states, by allowing unlimited contributions but requiring disclosure. “That to me is a better system than trying to outflank the other guy,” Ferrioli said.

House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) echoed Ferrioli’s remarks about transparency, saying Oregon has “good transparency, the best in the country.”

However, Kotek added “I think there’s a growing desire to have limits so maybe that will translate into interest in moving that measure this session.”

Unlimited contributions

Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University, said he does not expect contribution limits will gain much momentum this session, despite the influx of money into some races last fall.

“A lot of conservative money did come in, but not as much as the Bloomberg and Steyer money,” Moore said, referring to billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer. Bloomberg and Steyer funneled money to state Sen. Chuck Riley (D-Hillsboro) and other Oregon candidates in high-profile races last fall, through groups that work on gun control and environmental issues.

Nonetheless, Moore said the unlimited contributions in state elections does not seem like a problem to many Oregonians.

“And if the public thinks about it, they’re thinking of federal elections, not state elections,” Moore said.

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Providence nurses may unionize

With 72 percent of nurses filing cards in support, a union effort is moving forward at Providence's only non-union hospital in the state

For years, nurses at Providence Newberg Medical Center saw it as a point of pride that they were not part of a union.

“We felt we had this great relationship with the administration, we worked together really well,” said Valerie Whitmore, a nurse at Providence for 12 years both at the medical group and at various clinics. “There was that community focus, it just wasn’t something we felt we needed.”

To date the Newberg facility is the only Providence acute care hospital in the state without union representation for its nurses. Soon, though, that could change, as 72 percent of the staff nurses recently filed cards expressing their support for joining the Oregon Nurses Association.

The National Labor Relations Board requires 30 percent of employees to file cards in support, meaning the effort will move forward to a vote with well above the minimum support level.

A number of factors came together leading up to the union effort, with some of them tied to the hospital’s growth over the years.

“We’ve seen a big shift as we’ve gone from a small community-based hospital to more of a corporate model and a lot of the trends we’re seeing have followed that,” Whitmore said. “It’s going to be a challenge for any organization to keep that small-town feel.”

As the facility has grown in both employment and geographical area covered, some nurses have begun to feel less of a voice in the decision-making process at the hospital, she said.

“We found we weren’t being heard like we had in the past,” Whitmore said. “It had been a very open relationship in the past between nurses and management — not only could we go to the administration and say, ‘We need x, y and z,’ but sometimes we didn’t even have to do that. They’d say, ‘Whatever you need to take care of your patients.’”

Nurses have seen that style of management change and more of a top-down decision-making process come in to replace it, Whitmore said.

The hospital administration, however, maintains that the facility’s nurses have an important voice in decision-making at PNMC and that existing channels facilitate this process.

“Providence Newberg has always had an open door policy for all caregivers to engage in open two-way communication,” PNMC spokesperson Mike Antrim said in an email. “We have a history of decision-making through ‘practice councils.’”

The councils are teams of caregivers that work together within the hospital’s departments, Antrim said, with a goal of determining areas of patient care that can be improved and enacting those changes through shared decision-making.

“These councils are in place and active and we be believe they provide a proven model by empowering those directly involved in patient care to implement best practices,” Antrim said.

Still, recent issues have given nurses a sense that their input is not being heard.

One of the specific grievances arose in the birth center, a unit which formerly offered nurses guaranteed hours. Even if the number of patients dropped those nurses came to work and were assigned other tasks, but the guarantee is no longer in effect, said ONA organizer Minh Nguyen.

“Nurses from that department who historically have had that job protection of pay and hours, they started getting sent home when the census was low,” she said. “That’s a struggle. Not to say it’s wrong, but the thing that was difficult is that there was no conversation.”

Antrim said that change took place three years ago, but that nurses were a part of the decision-making process. “Staffing fluctuates based on patient volume high- and low-census days,” he said. “Nurses were involved in establishing this new model when we made the switch in 2012.”

What that involvement in decision-making looks like seems to be at the core of the debate.

“It’s more of a partnership we’re looking for, rather than someone coming in and taking over,” Whitmore said. “Just to be able to participate in the conversation.”

But Providence maintains that the existing model serves to foster direct relationships and open communication and that bringing in union representation would be a barrier.

“If our nurses choose to join a union, we will no longer be able to have direct dialogue with them without a third-party representative,” Antrim said.

A vote to decide whether the union will be formed at the Newberg facility is scheduled for mid-May. In the meantime, both the union and the administration indicate they will continue efforts to spread information, both to the caregivers as well as the wider Newberg community.

“We know this is our community, these are our neighbors and our family and our schoolmates, so we just want the absolute best possible care,” Whitmore said. “I think this is going to be the best way to make sure they continue to get that service.”

ONA has long had familiarity with Providence facilities, dating back over 100 years to 1904 when Providence St. Vincent’s was the first facility to be represented by the union.

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With Democrats in majority, environmental lobby hits hard

Environmental lobbyists are on a roll this year in Oregon.

They notched a big win early in the session when lawmakers passed legislation to make the state’s low-carbon fuel standard permanent. Now, lobbyists for a coalition of groups have turned their focus to bills that would require utilities to stop using power from coal plants by 2025.

That work isn’t cheap.

In 2014, a broad spectrum of environmental groups spent nearly $470,000 on lobbying in Salem, according to EO Media Group/Pamplin Media Group Capital Bureau’s analysis of state lobbying records.

The organizations range from small groups that promote water quality and wildlife issues, to industry organizations that seek incentives for renewable energy and efficiency projects.

Still, spending by the environmental lobby is low compared with other industries. A single energy interest group — the Western States Petroleum Association, which opposed the low-carbon fuel standard — spent just under $360,000 on lobbying in Oregon last year. All interest groups reported spending a total of nearly $27 million on lobbying in the state last year.

“We definitely don’t spend nearly as much money on lobbying,” said Christy Splitt, a registered lobbyist and coordinator for a coalition of environmental groups called the Oregon Conservation Network. “I’m not going out to dinner with legislators, or whatever other people are able to do, spending money on lobbying. I think most of what we spend on lobbying is going to pay people’s salaries.”

The environmental lobby does have several advantages, including strength in numbers and strong support from Democratic lawmakers this session. At least 55 registered lobbyists represent environmental interests in Oregon, and most are employees of the groups they represent and do other work in addition to lobbying. In addition, Splitt said there are pro-environment majorities in both chambers.

Environmentalists did not always enjoy such a strong position in Oregon. The Oregon Conservation Network formed 20 years ago at a time when environmentalists spent a lot of time fighting bills aimed at undermining “good” legislation passed in the 1970s, Splitt said. Republicans had control of the House from 1990 to 2006, and the Senate from 1994 to 2002.

“I think folks were feeling pretty frustrated with bad bills passing,” and decided to create a coalition to focus on shared priorities, Splitt said. “The group organized at the time pretty much played defense.”

A decade ago, the coalition decided to stop playing defense and begin proposing more new legislation. Rhett Lawrence, conservation director for the Oregon chapter of the Sierra Club and a registered lobbyist for the group, said coalition members started to come up with annual lists of bills they could agree on called “priorities for a healthy Oregon.”

The environmental lobby’s top priorities today are two bills they describe as “coal to clean” — Senate Bill 477 and House Bill 2729.

Both would require utilities to stop generating or purchasing electricity from coal power plants by 2025. The Senate version also would require companies to replace coal power with electricity from sources “at least 90 percent cleaner than coal-derived generating resources,” according to a legislative summary.

Splitt said other priorities this year include a bill to require private forestland owners to provide notice to the state and keep other records of their use of pesticides; a bill to appropriate money for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to spend on conservation; and legislation that would allow the state to end a mandate to generate revenue from timber harvests on some public forests.

Environmental groups also are pushing for the passage of legislation that would preserve or create incentives for a range of solar projects, from residential to utility scale facilities. Lawrence said solar energy “still needs a little bit of a hand in the next step in putting it on a level playing field with fossil fuel.”

Splitt said environmental groups also want money for public transit to be included in any funding package for street maintenance and other transportation projects. The outlook for that package is unclear, since Republicans stopped participating in talks after Democrats passed the low-carbon fuel bill.

Some groups lobbying on the coal power bills and other environmental issues are not strictly environmental groups.

Bob Jenks, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Oregon, said the group supports the coal legislation because governments eventually will regulate carbon emissions and ratepayers could save money if utilities begin to more aggressively reduce carbon now.

“We’ve got to work hard because we don’t have the money,” said Jenks, who is not the utility board’s registered lobbyist but was in Salem to testify in favor of the coal bills on Wednesday. “But we’ve got people. We can organize people.”

PUSHING ENVIRONMENTAL AGENDA

The following is a list of registered lobbyists who work on environmental issues in Salem.

• Angela Crowley-Koch, Casey Daline, Angela Dilkes Perry, Andrea Durbin, Jonathan Eames, Jana Gastellum, Christine Hagerbaumer, Allison Hensey and Teresa Huntsinger, Oregon Environmental Council (Daline, Dilkes Perry and Eames also lobby for the Wild Salmon Center)

• Jonathan Manton, WaterWatch of Oregon, Global Partners, LP, Central Oregon LandWatch, Friends of the Metolius, Bicycle Transportation Alliance

• Meredith Shield, works for Strategies360 and represents 1000 Friends of Oregon, renewable energy company Ameresco Inc., Northwest Energy Efficiency Council, Oregon Solar Energy Industries Association, Pacific Ethanol Inc., Sierra Club of Oregon, The Conservation Campaign

• Mary Solecki, Natural Resources Defense Council

• Rhett Lawrence, Sierra Club Oregon Chapter

• Hillary Barbour, Daniel Bates, Nicholas Hund, Nels Johnson and Elizabeth Remley, Renewable Northwest Project (all except Barbour also lobby for Clean Energy Works Oregon)

• Quinn Read, Sean Stevens, Steve Pedery, Chandra LeGue, Robert Klavins and Erik Fernandez, Oregon Wild

• Steve McCoy, Jason Miner, Mary Kyle McCurdy, Mia Nelson, Andrea Salinas (also lobbies for Northwest Energy Efficiency Council and The Conservation Campaign), 1000 Friends of Oregon

• Kimberley Priestley and John DeVoe, WaterWatch of Oregon

• Jim Myron, the Native Fish Society

• Chris Parta, Climate Solutions and The Ocean Foundation (The Oregon Marine Reserves Partnership)

• Camila Thorndike, Oregon Climate

• Rikki Seguin, David Rosenfeld, Charles Fisher and Charlotte Bromley, Environment Oregon

• Jeff Bissonette, Citizens Utility Board

• Adam Meyer, Douglas Moore and Christy Splitt, Oregon League of Conservation voters (Splitt is also registered to lobby for the Oregon Conservation Network)

• Courtney Sipel, Scott Robertson, Amanda Rich, Gary Oxley and Evyan Jarvis Andries, Nature Conservancy of Oregon

• Shawn Miller, Coastal Conservation Association

• Justin Martin, Defenders of Wildlife

• Stephen Kafoury, Oregon Chapter of the Wildlife Society

• Sue Marshall and Michael Selvaggio, Audobon Society of Portland (Marshall also lobbies for Tualatin Riverkeepers)

• Tom Wolf, Oregon Council Trout Unlimited

• Mark Pengilly, Oregonians for Renewable Energy Progress

• Joseph Furia, Freshwater Trust

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