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The fight for I-205 funding, school-based health centers continues for freshman representative

Much of the work West Linn's representative to the Oregon House did in her first legislative session was focused on making Oregonians healthier, which is a logical focus for a nurse practitioner.

Rep. Rachel Prusak, D- West Linn, recognizes, however, that there is still considerable work to be done in this respect and will continue to work toward this goal during the legislative break and in coming sessions.

The political newcomer served on the health care committee and said she was proud of a number of bills that came out of there:

"Funding Medicaid and 60-day notice for prescription drug increases, so more prescription drug price transparency. We also passed a drug take back program to address the opioid epidemic, so making sure that everyone has a place to bring their medications when they're not being used anymore."

She was also excited about the passage of a paid family medical leave bill, which will allow Oregonians earning more than $1,000 a year, 12 weeks of paid leave for medical or family reasons.

It's one of the first paid leave plans in the country to offer low-income earners 100% of the pay they will miss while on leave.

Heading into the next session, Prusak wants to continue work on a tobacco tax, telehealth medicine (a program enabling patients to receive health care from providers over long distances through a network of telecommunication technologies), safe storage gun laws, school-based health centers, a medication assistance program to fight the addiction epidemic and funding the Family Preservation Project, which offers inmates at Wilsonville's Coffee Creek Correctional Facility opportunities and resources to maintain relationships with their families.

"One of our take-home wins was increasing the amount of pilot programs we can have for school-based health centers and so I've got people together to talk about how we can do that in West Linn since we don't have that in West Linn," she said.

Prusak said she was surprised funding for the Family Preservation Project didn't pass during this session but she's going to work for it come the 2020 session.

"Connecting moms with children and preventing what can happen when moms don't connect with children is a public health issue, so I'm going to be taking meetings with some of the representatives in the House and the senators about why it didn't pass and how we can work to prove that it's actually a really important impactful program that we shouldn't lose," she said.

The Oregon Legislature got a lot of attention this year for the rift between the Democratic super majorities and Republican lawmakers — particularly when Republicans walked out of the Capitol and Oregon Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, made national headlines for threatening state police if the governor authorized troopers to return the Republicans to Salem.

But Prusak found that the bipartisanship in the House was quite strong, with representatives reaching across the aisle to form partnerships and move legislation forward.

"The leadership in the Republican party and the leadership in the Democratic party in the House were strong leaders and we all found a way to work together. Almost all of the bills were bipartisan," she said.

"It's the more controversial bills that made the news, but we found ways, whether it was long debates on the floor, or our extra hearings in the House, to really find and strike that balance."

These partnerships with both Republican and Democrat legislators were a key part of Prusak's first session. She said she worked at building these alliances over lunch, staying after long meetings to chat with colleagues and carpooling to Salem with other representatives from the area.

As a freshman lawmaker, Prusak said the learning curve of her first session was pretty steep. While she wasn't the chief sponsor of any bills that passed or a chair of any committee, she was happy to offer her expertise to the health care committee and hopes to rise in its ranks during coming sessions.

"Prior to me being on the health care committee, there wasn't a clinician, a provider who actually prescribed, an actual primary care provider for patients," she said.

She also hopes to offer her expertise to the Judiciary Committee next session.

"The judiciary committee was the last thing on my mind that could use a public health lens or could be where I see myself, but when I go back next session and I make requests again, I would love to serve on that committee."

Prusak also served on the transportation and economic development ways and means subcommittee, and in that role tried to secure funding for the I-205 widening and seismic improvements of the Abernathy Bridge, but in the end saw the bill die.

The fight for the funding isn't over though for Prusak and other local legislators.

Prusak said one of the biggest challenges of the first chapter of her political career was balancing it with her career as a nurse practitioner. She continued to see patients during the session Fridays-Sundays, when she wasn't in Salem.

For the next six months, she's happy to be back seeing patients on weekdays and having a bit of free time on the weekends. But that doesn't mean she's not doing legislative work during the break.

Prusak said she meets often with citizens and other stakeholders to hear their concerns and talk about solutions. In these conversations she's learned constituents are concerned about the Willamette Falls Locks and funding for community colleges.

She said she met with many local students during the session and continues to do so during the break.

"From them, I've heard a lot about the environment and also starting a school-based health center," she said.

Though her first session only just ended, Prusak said she is excited about what politics has in store for her and will "absolutely be running again."


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