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Wyden: Next justice will determine fate of health care

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden believes the next Supreme Court justice has the potential to “turn back the clock” on a key provision of the Affordable Care Act that bars insurance companies from denying health insurance based on pre-existing conditions.

Wyden outlined his concerns and progress on multiple issues Tuesday during a visit to the Mail Tribune offices.

“Most Oregonians want to move forward on healthcare,” Wyden said.

Citing a pending case in Texas, Wyden said the Trump administration is trying to “unravel” the cornerstone provision of the ACA, also known as Obamacare.

“I believe the next Supreme Court justice will be voting on whether or not America should turn back the clock on healthcare, and go back to the days when healthcare was for the healthy and wealthy, which is what you get when you allow discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions,” Wyden said.

There are 130 million Americans with pre-existing conditions, according to Wyden, who described choosing the next Supreme Court justice as an issue that crosses party lines.

“I think when we tell them that this is, in fact, a referendum ... I think a lot of Republicans and Independents and people all across the spectrum don’t want that to happen,” Wyden said.

Wyden said he’s been spending most of his time on legislation focused on reigning in prescription medication costs.

Senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Wyden relayed a quote last week from Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who said he “hoped” that major pharmaceutical companies would “exercise restraint” in pricing their medicines.

Wyden said a Monday Wall Street Journal story about Pfizer price increases on more than 40 medications demonstrates that more is needed.

“I want real action,” Wyden said. “I think it’s time to lift the restriction on Medicare so that Medicare can bargain to hold down the cost of medicine. I think it’s time to go after the middlemen — what are called the ‘pharmaceutical benefit managers’ because we don’t know what they put in your pocket and what they put in yours — and I’d introduce legislation called the Spike Act to require that the pharmaceutical companies have to justify what they’re spending on medicine.”

Another health-related concern of Wyden’s is balancing availability of opioid painkillers.

Opioid addiction has hit Oregon, particularly rural Oregon, “like a wrecking ball,” Wyden said, impacting older people and people with chronic illnesses.

Wyden said the medications were too-sparingly prescribed in the 1990s, when he was co-director of the Gray Panthers advocacy group. Today, the country is reeling from overprescribing, he said.

“We have to get the prescription drug pendulum right,” Wyden said.

Wyden is working with fellow Sen. Jeff Merkley on legislation to ease banking restrictions involving the marijuana industry.

“It seems to me that when Oregonians vote to legalize this particular type of business, they ought to get the same tax breaks as everyone else,” Wyden said.

Wyden said he’s unsure the proposed marijuana legislation will pass this session, but said it sends a bipartisan message asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions to honor states’ rights.

“It has been a tough lift to reign in Jeff Sessions,” Wyden said.

Wyden expressed vehement opposition to Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy at the Mexico border. Although the president has pledged to reunite families within 30 days, Wyden called it “disconnected from reality” and “not good enough for me.”

During the hearing with Azar last week, Wyden said he asked Azar whether his department ensured the parents knew where their children were.

“Instead of answering the question, the secretary of health said that the parents have ‘keystrokes’ available to them, and that they could use ‘portals,’” Wyden said. “We then made the point that these are parents who are in jail — they don’t have computers, they don’t have phones.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.

Ron Wyden