Column: Rural Oregon needs lower cost drugs

Now more than ever, we need to examine all approaches to solving the healthcare crisis for our vulnerable children, families and seniors in rural Oregon. With more than 600,000 living in rural areas across Oregon, we have to be acutely aware of how best we can ensure these neighbors have access to critical and affordable healthcare solutions. Places like Douglas County deserve healthcare as affordable and as high quality as any other county in our state.

Unfortunately, it is easier said than done.  And, it is altogether more difficult when special interests in Washington decide what is best for rural communities.

It’s why today I am especially frustrated to learn that prescription drug companies, a $450 billion-dollar industry, want to scrap a program that actually provides discounted drugs to Douglas County residents, helping to bridge the divide and lower barriers to life-saving drugs.

That’s right.  The pharmaceutical industry has its sights set on cutting the 340B program, a lifeline to rural healthcare providers, because the drug makers believe that discounts aren’t necessary for our community any longer.

Let’s pull back the layers here.  First of all, 46 million Americans live in rural areas, spread out across 72% of the land in this country.  That’s 14% of the population of the entire U.S., spread out across nearly three quarters of the land within our borders.  That fact alone speaks to the challenges in delivering high quality, affordable healthcare to so many of our fellow Americans scattered throughout vast landscapes.

Second, these areas lose tens of thousands of residents each year, and the demographics continue to age upward.  In fact, rural Americans, on average, are older than their counterparts in non-rural areas, which is certainly so in Douglas County. That reality also speaks to the need for them to have more direct and affordable access to healthcare services and providers.

As a former state representative and co-chair of the Joint Subcommittee on Health Care Transformation and now Douglas County Commissioner, I have worked on issues like access to healthcare in rural and low-income communities for many years now. As we stop to consider the challenges in rural America around healthcare access and the lack of economic growth, then we need to embrace sound government programs that enable access to life-saving care and medicines.  That’s common sense.

Unfortunately, the drug company lobbyists in Washington think otherwise.  These companies get billions of Medicaid dollars.  In return for our tax dollars, they give some of the profits they make back to rural America, by charging less for those drugs so rural hospitals and other providers can stay afloat.  Now, they want to welsh on their deal and leave us paying more. Drug companies are actively waging a campaign effort to convince Congress to cut the 340B program and shield drug companies from having to voluntarily provide discounts on drugs that vulnerable people in rural America need and rely on.

The 340B program merely requires pharmaceutical companies to provide discounts on their drugs.  In exchange, they get access to millions of Medicaid beneficiaries that receive care from rural providers, which act as a crucial safety net.  Bottom line – it’s like we are being taken for granted again, with special interests in DC determining the fate of rural America.

We need our federal delegation to strongly voice their support for the 340B program, and once again fight for communities like Douglas County.  Access to quality affordable healthcare and prescription medication is critical for our community and it needs to be protected.

Tim Freeman is a Douglas County Commissioner and has played a key role in Oregon healthcare policy throughout his many years of public service. Commissioner Freeman has served as the Roseburg City Council President and was the chair of the General Government Committee for the League of Oregon Cities. He served as a State Representative from 2009-2015 and was a member of the House Human Services Committee.