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Health care was on the minds of mid-valley residents and Sen. Ron Wyden on Wednesday.

Participants in a town hall at the Boys & Girls Club of Corvallis with the veteran Democrat asked a series of questions on health care, and Wyden also paid a visit later Wednesday to a Philomath pharmacy to talk about prescription drug costs and a bill on the issue that he is co-sponsoring.

In a bit of serendipity one of the questioners at the club session, who asked about the problems of insulin prices for those with diabetes, gave Wyden the opportunity to go all-in on his bill.

“Insulin prices have gone up 13 times in recent years … and it’s the same insulin,” he said. “Why are insurance companies doing this? Because they can.

“My No. 1 priority is to finally get prescription drug legislation that will stop price gouging and prevent Americans from getting mugged every time they go to the pharmacy counter.”

Wyden wants to help those behind the pharmacy counter as well. His bill, co-sponsored by Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa, would mandate out-of-pocket spending caps, increase transparency in drug pricing decisions and apply pressure on manufactures to lower list prices.

Wyden and Grassley claim the bill could save the taxpayers $85 billion in Medicare spending, $27 billion in out-of-pocket costs and $15 billion in Medicaid spending.

Co-owners Seth and Jane Phan at Philomath Pharmacy expressed enthusiasm for the bill in a free-wheeling 30-minute discussion at the pharmacy. A key concern for the pharmacy are the middle men — pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) — whose costs can often force pharmacies to lose money on a prescription.

The Phans and their employees have first-hand experience with the insulin issue, with Seth noting that some customers just go without it when they can’t afford it. Jane noted that sometimes churches help out and that the pharmacy also tries to work with individual doctors.

“Good for you,” Wyden said. “Small rural pharmacies are the forgotten part of the health care system. Everything got so big. This is the real world and I am absolutely determined to put in place policies that make sure you don’t go away. Too much of health care is algorithms and automated call centers.”

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Seth Pran agreed, noting that “the community really needs us here.”

Wyden also answered health questions at the 81-minute town hall, the 947th of his 23-year senate career. He fielded one question on Alzheimer’s disease and two on the Affordable Care Act, passed during the Obama administration and signed into law in 2010.

He expressed concerns about possible court challenges to the act, about which he said “to a lot of us it didn’t go far enough. Health care is the most important issue. I believe down to my toes that health care is a basic human right. Full stop.”

Wyden also fielded four questions on election security issues. He strongly suggested that going national with Oregon’s mail-in ballot approach could help ease people’s minds about challenges to our electoral system as well as boost participation.

“You’re being logical,” he responded to a question about why all states don’t adopt the Oregon system. “And that whole logic thing is not a big deal in the nation’s capital. Status quo people like it because it helps them keep people from voting who might disagree with them.”

On another election-related issue, Wyden said, to applause from the crowd of approximately 175 people, that he has changed his mind on the Electoral College and now favors direct election of the president by popular vote.

“I’ve given it a great deal of thought. It’s not an easy issue,” Wyden said. “The Founding Fathers thought that small states would have more clout if they didn’t do it by popular vote. But with social media and other media making elections more nationalized I will support the popular vote.”

Wyden took a pair of questions on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, with one audience member going so far as to call the Kentucky Republican "the biggest arch enemy of democracy in my lifetime."

Wyden offered a bit of a split decision. He criticized McConnell for preventing a Senate vote on Merrick Garland when President Obama nominated him in 2016 to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. But Wyden praised McConnell for working with him on a bill that legalized the growing of hemp, a crop that thrives in both Oregon and Kentucky.

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