If you’ve been following the recent editions of my e-newsletter, you know about the work I’ve done to try to get veterans easier access to the eBenefits, a new website run by the VA that allows veterans to quickly track their claims and benefits with just the click of a mouse.
Until now, veterans in Oregon were required to visit the Portland VA Regional Office in person to sign up. For those in central, southern, and eastern Oregon, the requirement to travel all the way to Portland simply to sign up is a prohibitive burden.
So I organized a campaign to bring the sign-up process to where the veterans live – we held office hours in 14 towns throughout the Second District to sign veterans up. The interest was undeniable; 795 veterans signed up for the service. It was the first effort of its kind in the country, and it was so successful that it has since been replicated elsewhere.
Well, good news…the VA has announced that it is taking steps to simplify access to the website. They are launching a pilot program to allow some veterans to sign up for the website via telephone. Veterans calling the main VBA benefits toll-free number at 800-827-1000 now have a touch-tone path to eBenefits information and they can select an option for enrolling via telephone. This new method is only available for Veterans who are receiving VA benefit payments via electronic funds transfer.
The VA and the Defense Department also hope to allow online registration later this year for the highest level of access to the website.
Now, I don’t know if what we did in the Second District directly led to any of this reform, but the VA is definitely doing the right thing here. If you or a loved one is a veteran and want more information about registration to this helpful website, go here:http://www.ebenefits.va.gov/.
Fixing the flood maps – legislation will help Jackson County, Milton-Freewater
Meanwhile, this past weekend I was in southern Oregon to let the people in Jackson County know that the House is readying a vote on a bill to fix the flawed floodplain maps that FEMA recently released for their communities.
FEMA has admitted that the maps it released for southern Oregon outlining 100-year and 500-year flood zones are flawed. Unfortunately, for many homeowners near smaller creeks like Lazy Creek, Larson Creek, Crooked Creek, and Lone Pine Creek, that means they are required to purchase expensive federal flood insurance that can cost thousands of dollars per year.
The problem isn’t isolated to southern Oregon – there’s bipartisan legislation that will receive a vote on Wednesday in the House that will order FEMA to work with state and local officials to produce the most accurate maps possible.
The bill, the Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2011 (H.R. 1309), is expected to pass.
The bill also does an important thing for the people in Milton-Freewater: it gives their community credit in the eyes of FEMA for all the work they have done to make their community safer by investing in their levee protection system.
While the maps are being corrected, the bill places a moratorium on the expensive mandatory flood insurance purchase requirement for homeowners like those in Jackson County who have been placed in the high risk zones for the first time, or for folks like those in Milton-Freewater where they are taking specific steps to repair levees.
Following through on the BRAC promise to Umatilla County
If you’re in eastern Oregon, chances are you’ve heard about the controversial decision from the Pentagon to consider keeping the Umatilla Chemical Depot under federal ownership, despite years of planning by the local community to get ready for the closure of the facility.
Since 1962, the depot has been home to some of the Army’s most dangerous chemical weapons. When it became clear that the weapons were going to be destroyed, the State of Oregon in 1990 created a regional task force to begin planning for the eventual closure of the facility. In 2005, the closure of the Depot was included in the BRAC Commission’s recommendations that eventually became law.
Despite spending $1 million in federal funds to finance 20 years of local planning on what to do with the 20,000-acre facility in Umatilla County, the Defense Department’s Office of General Counsel recently decided that the Depot should not be closed under the BRAC authority once destruction of the chemicals stored at the facility is completed this year – instead closing it under looser authority that would deprive the local community of any say in the future of the land and assistance in recovering lost jobs.
That doesn’t sit too well with myself, or with Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. We sent a letter to the Secretary of Defense telling him to close the facility under the BRAC process, as required under law.
“This decision is not only wasteful and counterproductive, but is also counter to the letter and spirit of the BRAC statute. … To try to use the BRAC statute to keep (the Depot) in federal hands and waste more than $1 million is shameful. We hope that you will review the OGC’s decision, and, finding that it was based on several false assertions, overrule it and allow the closure of (the Depot) to continue under BRAC.”
I’ll keep you posted on any response or progress on this issue.
Loop Road closer to a full re-opening
This weekend, following a week of business in the nation’s capital, I’ll be in Enterprise on Saturday morning for a community meeting hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, before heading over to Baker City for the Miner’s Jubilee Parade.
Last year in early June, torrential rains led to flooding in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest that washed out sections of the Wallowa Mountain Loop Road (also known as U.S. Forest Road 39).
The road is a conduit between Wallowa, Union, and Baker counties that serves as a major tourism corridor and economic engine during the spring and summer months. Following the washout of the road, I worked quickly with the local communities to request and secure prompt action from the state and federal authorities to get repairs under way by early August.
The road has been passable this year, but the long and wet Spring has led to complications in making further progress on the road. I’ll have an announcement to make this weekend, though, on that matter. Stay tuned!
Hope you have a great rest of the week.
U.S. Representative, Oregon’s Second District