Congressman Larsen talks about veteran health care, border crisis, oil train safety

Rick Larsen speaks at the Mountlake Terrace Senior Center Saturday.
Rick Larsen speaks at the Mountlake Terrace Senior Center Saturday.

U.S. Representative Rick Larsen stopped by the Mountlake Terrrace Senior Center Saturday morning to update constituents on some hot-button issues in the news, from veteran’s health care to options for processing the increasing number of children — the majority of them from Central America — entering the U.S. through the Southwest border.

Larsen, who has represented Washington State’s 2nd Congressional District since 2000, has been a frequent visitor to South Snohomish County since redistricting in 2011 gave him many new constituents in the area. On Saturday morning, he acknowledged the attendance of long-time Mountlake Terrace Mayor Jerry Smith, and promised Smith that he is continuing to lobby for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) funding for small- and medium-sized cities like MLT.

“I was on the on the phone yesterday with the [U.S.] Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, and explained how to him how important it is that we have TIGER programs that fit the smaller cities,” Larsen said, adding larger cities often “get to the front of the line” simply due to dollar amount requirements of their initiatives.

“Mountlake Terrace and others — they don’t need double-digit millions to get a project done; they need single-digit millions and the DOT doesn’t look at that project as big enough,” Larsen added. “I’ll continue to push for that.”

Under a bill introduced by Larsen in 2013, small- and medium-sized cities would get access to federal transportation dollars through what he is calling a TIGER CUBS program, with the CUBS standing for Cities Underfunded Because of Size. The act would set aside 20 percent of special transportation infrastructure funding specifically for smaller cities. Mountlake Terrace officials were hoping to secure at least $1 million through a TIGER grant from the federal government for its Main Street Revitalization project, but so far that has not happened.

Among the other issues Larsen addressed Saturday:

Veterans health care: In the next few weeks, the House and the Senate will address what Larsen described as “the terrible problems that we’ve seen crop up in the public eye at the VA [Veterans Administration],” referring to the 46 veterans in the Phoenix area who died while waiting for VA health appointments. In the Puget Sound area, while the numbers fluctuate monthly, in July about 12 percent of veterans had a more-than-30-day wait for their initial VA appointment.

Larsen pointed to the community-based outpatient clinic model such as one in Mount Vernon, where the goal was to have 6,500 vets enrolled there for their primary health care in five years, but at about four years the clinic is already serving 7,200 veterans in North Puget Sound. Calling it “clearly a success,” he added that  it was a project that “veterans themselves identified as wanting to make happen.” A similar clinic, serving North King and South Snohomish County, is located on Lake City Way in North Seattle, he said.

“As we look at reforms… one of the ideas we are looking at doing is increasing the number” of such community based clinics, Larson added.

The issue became personal later in the meeting, when Mountlake Terrace resident Ann Gallagher told Larsen about her husband, World War II veteran James Gallagher. She had an application in to the VA for a year to get home health care for her husband, but it wasn’t processed before Ann Gallagher was no longer able to care for him. As a result, James Gallagher “spent a miserable six months on pain medicines” at a nursing home before coming home to die, she said. “I’m speaking for all vets, not just my vet, and for veteran families. It’s tragic,” she said.

Humanitarian border crisis: Larsen explained the situation with the growing number of children crossing the Southwestern U.S. border as unaccompanied minors. In 2011, 75 percent of those kids coming across the U.S.-Mexican border were from Mexico, Larsen said. Today, 25 percent are from Mexico with the remainder coming from Central America — 28 percent from Honduras, 24 percent from Guatemala and 21 percent from El Salvador. What has changed that number?  “More violence” in those countries, much of it driven by drug cartels, he said, noting that Honduras is nicknamed the murder capital of the world with 90 murders per 100,000 people (compared to 4.7 in the U.S.). Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama are seeing a similar problem with unaccompanied minors entering their countries and attempting to apply for visas or asylum.

He also put much of the blame on human traffickers, driven by money, who “are flat out lying to these people, saying if you go to the U.S. once you’re there you can stay, and things will be great forever.”

Under U.S. law, children or adults from border countries — Mexico and Canada — are screened to see if they are a victim of human trafficking or there’s a credible fear of persecution if they return to their home country. “If not, they have to agree to leave,” Larsen said, adding that those who stay will be prosecuted under immigration law.  Kids from non-border countries can be released to a parent or guardian until they are processed through immigration court — a wait that is becoming increasingly long because the U.S. immigration system “doesn’t have the capacity to address the growing number of kids,”Larsen said. The Obama administration has asked for additional money to expand the court system, and Larsen said that the average processing time is 578 days from the time someone is taken into custody until he or she is adjudicated.

Oil trains: Noting that the Northwest now has four oil refineries in North Puget Sound — BP, Phillips 76, Tesoro and Shell — each of them has either built or is in the process of building or getting permits to build a reception facility to unload crude oil from train cars. “The capacity from each of the refineries, barrels per day, is limited,” Larsen noted.”Crude coming in by rail is replacing capacity that these refineries are losing because capacity coming out of the Alaska North Slope is declining.”

As a result, towns along rail lines are seeing oil train tankers that carrying 12 millions gallons of crude oil a day, when there used to be none, “and that’s an issue,” Larsen said. As the only member of the Wahsington state congressional delegation on the House Transportation Committee, Larsen said he has been working to address the potential problems that could result from this rail cargo, including increasing rail tank car standards so they are built tougher, ensuring that first responders along the rail line are appropriately trained to respond to any disasters that may occur, and increasing rail line inspection and maintenance.

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