U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Portland) was not greeted by groups or individuals protesting his stances on issues during a town hall at the Union County Senior Center Saturday evening.

Still, the town hall, the 935th Wyden has conducted since being elected in 1996, will not soon be forgotten by the senator, who announced it was being conducted in honor of the veterans of Union County.

“This is the first time I have ever dedicated a town hall (to a group or individual),” the senator said.

Wyden took this step after saluting retiring Union County Veterans Service Director Byron Whipple by presenting him with an American flag that has flown at the U.S. capital in Washington, D.C. Whipple is completing his 10th and final year in the position.

“He has just been incredible,” Wyden said. “Byron is a lifeline for the veterans of Union County. He is always there for them.”

Wyden, while speaking about veterans, mentioned his late father, who was Jewish and grew up in Germany. He fled to the United States with his family in the 1930s to escape the impending Holocaust.

Wyden recalled his father, who became an American citizen, eagerly enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II. He wanted to help the Allies defeat the Nazis, and he did so by writing propaganda leaflets that were dropped over Germany during WWII.

Following his presentation to Whipple, the senator began fielding questions from the audience, a number of which concerned the rising cost of pharmaceuticals. Wyden said this is one of the most important issues facing the United States.

“My number one priority is helping (bring) down the price of drugs,” Wyden said. “We need to stop the price gouging by pharmaceutical companies.”

He said there are problems up and down the prescription drug supply chain, including insurance companies, which need to be addressed. He said steps such as getting rid of the middleman need to be taken to help tackle the problem.

Wyden also said the financial side of health care is caught in a continually increasing cycle: When people who can’t afford insurance need emergency medical care, the cost is passed on to other patients in the form of higher prices for medical care.

Wyden came to La Grande a day after being in Portland where he spoke about his support for legislation that would help Congress better address mental health issues. He had spoken in Portland at a “Breaking the Silence” news conference, aimed at getting people to be more open about addressing the subject of mental health. The senator said he earlier broke his own silence on this issue when he spoke publicly about a brother who suffered from schizophrenia.

“For years and years, I would go to bed every night wondering if he was going to hurt himself,” Wyden said of his brother Jeffrey, who died in 2001 at age 51.

Those posing health care questions at the town hall included a nursing student from the Oregon Health and Science University School of Nursing at Eastern Oregon University. Wyden said he was delighted to hear from the student because of his concern about health care in the region.

“You can’t have rural Oregon without rural health care,” Wyden said.

He said one way to boost rural health care in Oregon is getting students like those graduating from OHSU School of Nursing at EOU to remain in this region.

“We want you (students at OHSU-EOU) to stay,” Wyden said.

The senator mentioned another hurdle facing rural health care is the high cost of medical education and the resulting debts.

“This is discouraging people from getting into medicine,” Wyden said.

Addressing another health care issue, Wyden spoke about the possibility of creating a single-payer system in the United States, essentially expanding Medicare to cover all Americans. Wyden said it is beneficial to consider moving in this direction.

“I’m all for expanding Medicare choices,” Wyden said.

One reservation he has is that under a single-payer system, millions of Americans who now receive health insurance from their employers would lose it.

Wyden was also asked about efforts by Russia to change votes by hacking into computers used for voting. He said one of the best ways to avoid this problem would be to have everyone in the United States go back to using paper ballots.

“Paper can’t be hacked,” he said. He noted in states like Oregon, which has vote by mail, all ballots are paper. Wyden said he would like all states to follow Oregon’s example.

Wyden was also asked about his plans to help towns in rural Oregon rebuild their infrastructure. The senator said he is working with fellow senators to get more funding to help communities with things like road and water projects.

“Rural Oregon is bleeding. We want to restore its infrastructure,” Wyden said.

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