Ron Wyden covered a lot of ground with Morrow County constituents at his town hall meeting on Sunday. But the focus of the day was health care, with Oregon’s U.S. senator fielding several questions about his thoughts on Medicare for All, pharmaceutical costs and rural health care.
Wyden spoke at length about his goal to keep pharmaceutical costs down, and keep manufacturers from inflating prices. He talked about his efforts to hold PBMs, or Pharmaceutical Benefit Managers, accountable for hiking up prices on medications.
Dr. Doug Flaiz, a retired physician from Hermiston, told Wyden that his wife had recently been charged more than $600 for a medication. When Flaiz challenged the price, he learned that the price of the medicine was actually about $30.
“That tells you about the integrity of the (pharmacy benefit management) system,” Wyden said, noting that it’s even more difficult for people who don’t know how to navigate the medical system.
He praised local pharmacists, like the Murray family from Heppner, who he said he has worked with at the local level.
“They’re the face of rural health care,” he said. “Without rural health care, you don’t have rural life.”
John Murray, who owns Murray Drug, said that he hopes to see Wyden’s continued support in holding pharmaceutical companies accountable.
“Anything you can do to rein them in this session would be fantastic,” he said. “Anything to shine a light on where the money is going.”
Wyden said keeping pharmaceutical costs down and dealing with rural health care needs are some of his biggest priorities.
“Senator Grassley (R-Iowa) and I are talking among our staffs about the possibility of a rural health care bill in this Congress,” Wyden said. “I see it as my job to try and make sure there are policies to give them the opportunity to keep the doors open.”
Representatives of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation were at the meeting to talk to Wyden about health and nutrition efforts among tribal members.
Rosenda Shippentower said the tribe has been working to reduce diabetes rates, which she said disproportionately affects Native Americans. She thanked Wyden for his support of the Special Diabetes Program for Indians.
Shippentower said they have used the special funding for education, to purchase equipment and for eye screenings.
“We’re very proud of that,” she said. “But we’re concerned that funding will expire in 2019.”
Wyden said he would do anything he could do to maintain funding for the program. He said while Medicare used to focus more on acute issues, that’s not the case anymore.
“Today, it’s about chronic illness,” he said. “Cancer, diabetes, strokes, chronic pulmonary disease — and the latest estimate is that 80 percent of Medicare will involve treating people who have two or more of those conditions.”
He said in light of those changes, preventative measures and programs like the diabetes education program become even more important.
A Boardman resident told Wyden she wanted some assurance that Medicare and Social Security funds would not be raided to pay for President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.
“I’m more concerned they’ll be raided to pay for that $1.5 billion tax cut,” Wyden said.
Constituents also asked Wyden about international trade as well as development projects at the Port of Morrow.
Morrow County Commissioner Don Russell thanked Wyden for his support of the Wheatridge project, which will become a site for solar, wind and battery storage in Morrow County.
“It will be the first one in Oregon without the flashing red lights at night (on the wind turbines),” Russell said. “The lights will be off unless something flies into their RADAR space.”
Russell said he’d like to see that practice replicated nationally — an idea Wyden said he liked.
Kevin Gray of Morrow County Grain Growers told Wyden about a major grain storage project going on at the port, and the opportunities to ship grain from the Midwest. The grain will end up in Portland, he said, and eventually head to Asia. He asked Wyden to consider the importance of export markets.
“Trade has huge stakes for Morrow County and for the whole state,” Wyden said. “One of five jobs in Oregon revolve around international trade.”
He said he agrees with some of President Trump’s trade philosophies.
“Especially with China ripping off our technologies,” he said. “But I think if you have a tariff that hits your allies, and hits people who want to spend money in Oregon, that doesn’t seem like a winner.”