Wyden faces Salem citizens’ questions on mental health, corporate accountability

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden stopped in Salem on Tuesday, Jan. 17, for his 1,036th town hall to address questions from the public about key issues facing Oregonians.

Oregon’s senior senator, a Democrat, spoke in general terms, providing little detail on what he intended to do about pressing national issues Salem citizens identified as important.

He told the crowd at a Chemeketa Community College auditorium that he intended to crack down on corporations misleading the public, expand mobile crisis response units across the state and ensure social services aren’t hindered by an impending cap on the national debt.

More than 100 people attended the event, which ran about 90 minutes. Those in the audience used the town hall to question Wyden about how he would deter corporate theft beyond issuing fines, help expand local education programs and ensure newer homeless services in Salem continue to be funded long term.

Wyden said it is important to send a message to large corporations and “the most well-compensated individuals” that they will not avoid consequences if they defraud consumers or invade their privacy.

“You don’t do this on everything. It’s got to be the most flagrant, the most egregious abuses. I do think you pierce the corporate veil for those types of things,” he said.

Wyden introduced the Mind Your Own Business Act of 2021, which would give consumers control over the sale and sharing of their data, give the Federal Trade Commission more authority and staff to regulate the market for private data, and “spur a new market for privacy-protecting services,” the bill reads. It was referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

Wyden said one of his priorities is holding accountable insurance companies that operate what amount to “ghost networks,” including those intended for mental health services.

“In other words, there isn’t anybody there. There aren’t providers there, there aren’t people who answer the phone calls. You can’t get a navigator,” he said. 

Wyden said he and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, will have to address the debt ceiling, which limits how much money the federal government can borrow. The national debt is expected to reach its statutory limit on Thursday, at which point the U.S. Department of the Treasury “will need to start taking certain extraordinary measures to prevent the United States from defaulting on its obligations,” Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen wrote in a letter to federal leaders last week.

“This is not about new spending,” Wyden said. “The debt ceiling is about paying the bills you’ve already incurred.” 

He said he will do all he can to ensure that adjusting the debt limit is a bipartisan process. He is chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

“I’m not gonna sit around and let somebody hold Social Security and Medicare hostage on this thing,” Wyden said. “In particular, I’m really troubled about this idea that, you know, somehow you can steal the benefits earned by millennials and Gen Xers and give them to boomers or somebody else. We’re supposed to be protecting everybody who has earned Social Security benefits.”

U.S. Rep. Andrea Salinas, who was sworn in earlier this month to represent the new 6th Congressional District in Oregon, said at the town hall that state leaders need to work to bring down the cost of health care, as well as take better advantage of Oregon’s prominent agricultural industry. 

She said they also need to use all the Medicaid and Medicare funding available to the state, helping fill gaps in mental and behavioral health services. “We know we don’t have the providers that we need right now,” she said. 

As a new congresswoman, Salinas said she intends to push for funding for innovative education programs that help grow such workforces, such as Salem’s Career Technical Education Center, a public-private partnership which offers high school students training for high-skill careers. 

“I feel like we should as a country be bolstering programs just like this,” she said.

Wyden said his committee secured $1 billion for programs where mental health workers respond to some crisis calls instead of police. Public agencies have increasingly viewed mobile crisis response as a more effective and affordable way to handle 911 calls related to mental illness, addiction and homelessness. 

“I’m really excited about the possibility of Marion County right here,” he said, “because you guys have already been building.” 

Marion County officials said in November 2022 that they intended to use state money to create four mobile crisis response teams. Each would have a qualified mental health professional and a certified recovery mentor to help de-escalate people in crisis if the incident poses a low risk of harm to staff. 

Wyden said federal and local leaders also need to do a better job of linking their veterans affairs services to create more opportunities for high-skill, high-wage jobs in the private sector – particularly in healthcare and aviation. “Vets who have served our country with so much valor and so much distinction deserve that,” he said.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

SUBSCRIBE TO GET SALEM NEWS  We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe today to get our daily newsletters and more. Click I want to subscribe!

Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.