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Capital Chatter: Honoring Oregon veterans

Regardless of when they served, Oregon veterans share many of the same challenges.

Hailing from each of Oregon's 36 counties, nearly 150,000 Oregonians served in the armed forces during World War II, according to the Oregon Secretary of State's Office.

"They came from the remote ranches of Harney County dozens of miles from any paved road, from the densely packed apartments of central Portland and everywhere in between."

On Saturday, Oregonians will observe Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, honoring the men and women who lost their lives in the Japanese attack that brought the U.S. into World War II.

Fewer than 390,000 U.S. veterans of WW II are alive, including 7,314 in Oregon, according to the National World War II Museum. The largest segment of Oregon veterans are those who served during the Vietnam era.

The difference between those eras will be illustrated in the war memorials in Willson Park on the Oregon Capitol grounds.

Mike Abbate is designing the proposed Vietnam War Memorial so it complements but contrasts with the Oregon World War II Memorial, which was dedicated in 2014.

"World War II had widespread public support. Vietnam War did not," he said. "World War II veterans were welcomed as heroes. Vietnam veterans were ignored, or worse. World War II had clear — very clear — goals and enemies. And our goals and enemies in Vietnam were not so clear."

The WWII memorial is at Court and Cottage streets NE. The Vietnam memorial will be at the other end of the block, State and Cottage, with an area between to honor prisoners of war and those missing in action.

The solid black wall of the WW II memorial reflects the unified public support of the war, Abbate said. The Vietnam memorial will have black columns whose gaps will signify fractured support, and there will be other contrasts.

The proposed memorial will cost about $2.7 million. Backers hope to get approval from the 2020 Legislature, according to Steve Bates, president of the Vietnam War Memorial Fund. It will be privately funded.

Regardless of when they served, Oregon veterans share many of the same challenges. The Oregon Department of Veterans' Affairs heard about some at its quarterly meeting on Wednesday in Salem.

I was astounded that in 2019, the federal VA still uses a paper billing system for health care. That explains why hospitals and other providers often first bill Medicare, electronically, even though a veteran might have 100% coverage through the VA.

That is a huge problem for the veteran.

Medicare often require co-pays. Christine Gittins of Redmond, an Army veteran who serves on the ODVA advisory committee, told me that those co-pays could run into thousands of dollars for a hospital experience.

Federal regulations bar the VA from covering those co-pays. It can pay the whole bill. But it cannot pick up the final part of what another federal agency has paid. (If this makes sense to anyone, please explain it to me.)

When the VA denies payment for the co-pay, the veteran is stuck either paying the co-pay or getting the bill redirected in whole to the VA, as I understand it. Gittins suggested veterans call the 1-800 number at the bottom of the VA claim denial for help in figuring out what to do.

Besides the frustration veterans endure, the lengthy process results in their often being sent to collection while their bill goes unpaid. Their credit report suffers until they get it correct.

Darwin Goodspeed, director of the Portland VA Health Care System, said many veterans are good at navigating the system and alerting their providers to always bill the VA. But until the federal rules change, he's stuck.

And committee members noted that VA facilities aren't good at communicating with each other.

My perspective was that Goodspeed didn't appear to be passing the buck. He didn't dodge difficult questions. Committee members seemed relieved that he recognized VA's backwardness in some areas but also came with news of progress..

Federal legislation that took effect last summer brought common sense to aspects of the VA. For example, VA patients in Bend no longer will have to drive to the Portland VA to get an MRI. The VA is contracting to provide more services locally, including urgent care in Tillamook and cardiology and MRIs in Bend.

And, Goodspeed told me, the VA hopes to fully implement electronic billing by next June.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.