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Senator Ron Wyden Talks Mental Health and Climate Change Reform at School of Public Health Event

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United States Senator Ronald L. Wyden (D-Ore.) discussed the challenges and opportunities of mental health and climate change legislation at a virtual event hosted by the Harvard School of Public Health on Wednesday afternoon.

Wyden was joined in conversation by moderator Krista Mahr, a health reporter with POLITICO. The talk was part of a series titled “View from the Hill” hosted by the HSPH.

During the talk, Wyden discussed how his brother impacted his views on America's health care system. Wyden’s younger brother struggled with schizophrenia — something Wyden said “had a huge impact” on his policy work.

“We would go to bed at night — week after week — worried that my brother would be on the streets and he was going to hurt himself, or someone else,” he said.

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Wyden said he is concerned about the lack of mental health professionals to meet the “enormous need” of about 150 million people who live in mental health workforce shortage areas.

To remedy this, Wyden said he is exploring public-private partnerships to design mental health care solutions, citing the success of an Oregon-based public-private partnership between the University of Oregon and business magnates Steve and Connie Ballmer.

“They are launching a four-year program in Portland that can take a real bite out of the provider shortage because they’re giving us a model for training students in behavioral health,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can to use this as a model for federal programs.”

Wyden said when young people are referred to mental health services, there is “virtually nobody” who follows through with them.

“That’s why we made a special effort in the gun safety bill on provisions like telehealth and the like,” he said. “Because of familiarity with digital, we think they’re likely to use those kinds of services."

In response to a question about insurers not treating mental health and physical health equally, Wyden said insurers have been “dragging their feet” in doling out payments for mental health insurance claims.

“I put out a press release — it was very small, it was in the Oregonian, a newspaper — saying I was going to open an investigation into all of this foot-dragging and excuse-mongering we were hearing from the insurance companies,” he said. “Within a few weeks, the University of Oregon Health Sciences Center got a gusher of payments from the insurance companies.”

Speaking on climate change, Wyden said President Joe Biden’s signing of the Inflation Reduction Act was “one of the best moments of [Wyden’s] time in public service.”

“We now will have a system built around clean energy, clean transportation, energy efficiency,” he said. “Between now and 2030, it’ll get us a long way to meeting the President’s carbon emission reductions targets.”

Wyden also said it is necessary to do more for fire prevention to minimize the health impacts of climate change.

“You sure see the impact of smoke wafting through your community,” Wyden said. “The smoke is a serious health concern. It’s dangerous to people’s lives and it takes a huge toll on mental health.”

—Staff writer Krishi Kishore can be reached at krishi.kishore@thecrimson.com.

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