ABINGDON — Candidates for the 9th Congressional District seat discussed Medicaid expansion and the challenges of rural health care Thursday in front of rural health advocates from Southwest Virginia.

U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, and Democratic challenger Derek Kitts of Christiansburg separately talked about Southwest Virginia’s long list of health care problems, including opioid abuse, limited access to affordable prescription drugs and the need for more health care professionals in rural areas at a Virginia Rural Health Association meeting.

The health conference was one of the rare occasions this campaign season where the two candidates appeared at the same event, though Kitts and Griffith did not see the other speak because a presentation by the Virginia state health commissioner was sandwiched between them.

In his 30-minute speech, Kitts said, if elected, he would focus on adding infrastructure — new and better roads, hospitals, high-speed internet and more to attract jobs and to build the 9th District’s tax base. In turn, schools and education would improve, as would health care access and services.

In his 10-minute remarks, Griffith focused on his work so far in Congress, highlighting his FAST Act telehealth legislation pertaining to stroke services and the Ensuring Seniors Access to Local Pharmacies Act that would grant seniors in underserved areas access to lower copays at the pharmacy of their choice. Griffith serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and is on its subcommittees on health and on energy and power.

After prepared remarks, both candidates took multiple questions from the audience of about 50 people.

“The majority of Virginia is rural,” Kitts said. “Rural health care has to be a priority, but yet it gets pushed to the wayside because it’s not sexy.”

To fight the rise in opioid addiction in rural parts of the state, Kitts advocated for subsidizing local drug court programs and increasing the number of drug rehabilitation facilities.

He also campaigned on improving the Veterans Choice Program to make it easier for veterans who live far away from veterans’ hospitals to access medical care.

When one audience member asked what Kitts would do to get much-needed medical professionals into rural areas, the candidate suggested a student loan forgiveness program similar to Teach For America or AmeriCorps.

Without mentioning his opponent by name, Kitts made several references to Griffith playing party politics or focusing on Washington, D.C., issues and not local issues.

“Nobody’s born with an R or a D next to their name and I think we get wrapped up in the rhetoric a little too much,” he said.

Griffith didn’t mention his opponent and only briefly noted the upcoming election. The congressman in his third term focused on his efforts in Washington.

One of his current initiatives is to do away with drug take-back programs and instead, relax current regulations so doctors and pharmacists can take back unused prescription drugs on a day-to-day basis.

He also talked about innovation in the medical field and how companies like Apple and Google are developing the technology to make possible surgeries in which the surgeon is in one place and the patient is in another.

On the legislative level, elected officials need to encourage such advances and regulate them for safety reasons, but not so much that the public can never take advantage of such breakthrough technology, he said.

“We are on the cusp of having, in rural America, better health coverage than we ever dreamed of,” Griffith said.

Although state legislators decide Medicaid expansion, Griffith said he fears Virginia cannot afford the costs left over from the federal government. Kitts is in favor of expanding Medicaid.

The candidates will debate in Tazewell next week. The 9th District race also includes independent candidate Janice Allen Boyd. She was not present at the health conference and was not invited to participate in the debate next week.

The 9th District stretches from the westernmost tip of the state to Martinsville and north to Alleghany County.

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