By Carol Orr

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The state of Oregon seems to have hit the big-time over the last several years. The Oregon Ducks are stars on the national collegiate stage, and popular shows like “Portlandia” have brought attention to our major city. But, outside of our urban centers, there are thousands of rural Oregonians who are often forgotten.

These Oregonians are the backbone of our timber and farming industries, yet many struggle to access simple necessities such as basic medical care. Rural Oregonians are often forced to drive hours to see a doctor, and if there’s an emergency, there are few options for treatment.

That’s why it’s unconscionable that anyone would support legislation that would endanger our rural hospitals, which are already overworked, understaffed and financially challenged.

U.S. Rep Greg Walden, R-Hood River, serves as the elected representative for many of these rural Oregonians in Congress. The 2nd District is the largest in the state, covering some two-thirds of its land, so Walden’s constituents are some of the most in need of rural hospital services.

As chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, he is one of the most powerful men in Washington. Yet he has not supported a movement to protect rural hospitals via the 340B Drug Pricing Program, an arrangement between rural hospitals and pharmaceutical companies which enables critical-access hospitals to receive deeply discounted medications.

This fall, 228 members of the House of Representatives and 57 senators signed letters expressing bipartisan support of the 340B program. Those signing included Oregon politicians Sen. Jeff Merkley; Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Beaverton; Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland; Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield; and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby. In total, one of Oregon’s two senators and four of her five representatives signed these important letters.

One who did not was Greg Walden.

This lack of support is even more shocking now that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid has issued a final ruling on the 340B Drug Pricing Program that cuts drug discount rates by almost 30 percent.

So why would Republicans in Congress consider hurting their own constituents? Because Big Pharma — no stranger to Washington influence — wants it.

Some have claimed that 340B discounts force drug companies to raise prices, but that’s untrue. The discounts accounted for only 1 percent of the total prescription drug market. So changes to the 340B program won’t lower drug prices at all — in fact, they’ll only enable drug companies to reap ever greater profits, even though the industry made an estimated $700 billion last year.

Having been first elected to office almost 20 years ago, Walden must know how important rural voters are to Republicans’ control of Congress.

In 2014 and 2016, Walden was head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the group charged with electing Republicans to the House.

And Walden is one of the most successful chairmen ever, having elected record-size Republican majorities. These majorities were charted through rural districts, just like Walden’s. Yet these are the very districts that would be hardest hit by changes to the 340B program.

Such changes will have dire effects for rural communities. Many rural hospitals have recently closed due to financial strain. Forcing these institutions to pay more for necessary medications will likely mean additional closures.

If this happens, not only will rural residents have to travel farther for treatment, but local economies will also be devastated by the loss of a significant community employer, which can make up 20 percent of the local economy.

Walden, and the Republicans he helped elect with the support of rural voters, have a responsibility to put our interests first. We voted to drain the swamp, not further line the pockets of Big Pharma.

We ask that Walden put his foot down and protect the 340B Drug Pricing Program.

— Carol Orr lives in Terrebonne.

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