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Wyden says Medicare relief unlikely soon

Senator says reform stands little chance while war in Iraq commands attention

Medicare reform stands little chance while the war in Iraq looms large, Sen. Ron Wyden said Thursday, but that doesn't diminish its significance.

It's hard to get any other issue other than the war on the radar, said Oregon's Democrat in the Senate, but if the country waits for world peace to do health-care reform, we're going to be waiting for a long time.

Changing the payment structure for Medicare will take a national political coalition. Wyden said Medicare will have to be reformed before the demographic tsunami of baby boomers become eligible for government health care around 2010.

He wants to force Medicare to stop rewarding inefficiencies such as paying for long hospital stays in states that have high Medicare reimbursement rates. New York's average hospital stay is eight days, he said, while Oregon's is four days.

We'll have to educate people that this is not pitting one state against another, he said. Everybody is going to be sunk if we have a system that sends a message that being inefficient is not a problem.

Whether Wyden and Congress can act on Medicare anytime soon seems doubtful, said Karen Whitaker, director of Oregon's Office of Rural Health.

All of the forces have converged at this particular time to make Medicare reform unlikely, she said.

Whitaker said Southern Oregon feels Medicare's inequities more than other regions because it has a disproportionately large population of seniors. Sixteen percent of Jackson County residents are age 65 and over, compared to 12.8 percent statewide.

Residents of nearby counties add to the load: Josephine County's senior population totaled 20 percent during the 2000 census, and 14.9 percent of Klamath County residents were eligible for Medicare.

We're attracting more and more retirees, she said, because Oregon's a nice place to live. The rural communities benefit tremendously from these folks, but they need health care.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492, or e-mail