HHS Nominee Grilled on Obamacare, Stock Trades, Reorganizing Agency

Health and Human Services Secretary-designate, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga. testifies on Capitol Hill Wednesday. Health and Human Services Secretary-designate, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga. testifies on Capitol Hill Wednesday. AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Though the main bone of contention was the Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the first of two confirmation hearings for President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Health and Human Services Department also brought out tensions over his stock trades and possible plans to reorganize two sub-units within the 77,000-employee department.

Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., until recently chairman of the House Budget Committee, assured senators on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that, like them, he has “a passion” for HHS. But his broader concerns are with “the broader [health care] system and how it intersects with government,” Price said. Too often, government and insurance companies get between doctors and their patients.

Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., opened Price’s hearing with his personal view that the controversial health care law is “like a collapsing bridge in your hometown.” But he noted that insurance companies face a March 1 deadline for planning next year’s policies. So, while the law “cannot be replaced with a quick fix,” Congress should “get everyone in a room” and quickly work out a plan that might take years to implement.

Price, while postponing his own recommendations pending confirmation, said “no one has the intention of pulling the rug out from under anyone” who now has coverage. He implored senators to “lower the temperature” on the difficult process of arriving at a new health system.

Ranking member Patti Murray, D-Wash., said she had serious concerns about Price—based in part on his budgets and past health care legislation—“ripping apart our healthcare system without any plan for replacement” and “taking our system in a vastly different direction.” She cited his proposals to “end the Medicare guarantee,” as she put it, shift $1 trillion in Medicaid to states, and Price’s past contempt for Democratic proposals to allow the government to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., sought a commitment from Price that he would enforce candidate Trump’s promise not to cut Medicare or Social Security. Price merely acknowledged Trump’s assertion.

Price expressed anger after Warren, joined by Murray and Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., questioned stock trades he made in 2015 and 2016 in a number of companies, including Innate Immunotherapeutics and Zimmer Biomet. Brandishing specifics, the Democrats said Price had made trades within weeks of action in the House that boosted the investments.

“You didn’t have to buy the stocks,” said Murphy, asking Price whether he informed his broker that he risked a conflict of interest by trading in health-related stocks.

“I’m offended by the insinuation,” Price said at one point. He said his trades were all reported to the House as required, and, as Chairman Alexander added, his brand-new agreement with the Office of Government Ethics to sell off some stocks is now posted on that agency’s website. “I had no communication with my broker,” Price said, adding that a broker’s job for all clients is to protect their holdings by diversifying their portfolios. “I had no access to nonpublic information,” he added. “My opposition to government dictating goes back decades.”

It was Republican Sen. Todd Young of Indiana who first raised the issue of Price’s past criticisms of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, which Young defended as “a helpful model that saves money and works the way scientists do, seeing what works and then scaling up.”

Price replied that he is a “strong advocate of innovation at every level, and CMMI has great possibility and great promise to do things to change the payment model.”

But the nominee said he remains “adamantly opposed” to the mandates the office places on health care providers during pilot programs. He cited one policy in which the office “dictated” to doctors the kind of prosthesis or surgery to be used, regardless of what doctors deemed was in the patient’s best interest. He also blasted a CMMI policy of looping in 75 percent of the county as part of a Medicare Part B demonstration model. “What kind of model is 75 percent? This is an experiment,” he said.

In defending Obamacare, Murray and Democrats warned that cuts in health-care subsidies disproportionately affect blacks, Hispanics and American Indians, asking Price whether he would preserve the HHS Office of Minority Health. “That’s a legislative issue,” he replied. “My only commitment is to patients,” he said.

A vote on Price’s nomination will not be taken in the HELP panel but in the Senate Finance Committee, which plans a hearing with him on Jan. 24.

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