January 20, 2017

Price Completes HELP Courtesy Confirmation Hearing

Rep. Tom Price, MD (R-GA), President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), faced intense questioning during a Jan. 18 courtesy confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. Price, a multiterm member of Congress and practicing orthopedic surgeon before his election to Congress, will appear on Jan. 24 before the Senate Finance Committee, which has direct jurisdiction over confirming the HHS secretary.

Price fielded numerous questions related to his overarching vision for HHS, the strategy for repealing and replacing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), preferences for reforming Medicare and his recent health care-related stock trades. Each HELP Committee member was permitted seven minutes to question the secretary-designee.

Reforming HHS

As a member of Congress, Price has consistently questioned the level of authority concentrated within HHS and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Price has also never shied away from criticizing various new HHS agencies created via PPACA, most notably the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI).
However, in a surprise move, the secretary-designee offered limited praise for CMMI in his opening statement, and his responses to various questions highlighted the importance of HHS in the health care delivery system. Price hopes that voicing a more moderate view of the role of HHS will assuage Senate Democrats’ fears that, if confirmed, he will immediately undo many longstanding initiatives within the department.

PPACA Repeal

Numerous Senate Democrats did not hesitate to critique Price’s preference to fully repeal PPACA, commonly referred to as Obamacare, and replace it with policies that may offer patients expanded opportunities to purchase health insurance, rather than provide guaranteed coverage through government subsidies to patients. Yet, Price also appeared receptive to expectations expressed by HELP Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) that any repeal of the PPACA will not occur until after congressional Republicans finalize and release their own comprehensive plan to reform health care.

In addition, Price stressed that the Republican’s forthcoming plan to dismantle Obamacare would not rip health benefits away from anyone, and he stated that it’s of great importance for patients to retain their existing insurance coverage. These responses may be in conflict with President Trump’s preference to immediately eliminate PPACA, however, and it’s unclear at this time whether the Republican conference has officially coalesced around a specific strategy to repeal the health care law.

Reforming Medicare and Medicaid

Numerous Senate Democrats also pressed Price to vow that, if confirmed, he would not actively pursue policies that reduce Medicare and Medicaid funding. Citing statistics from Price’s Empowering Patients Act and past House Republican congressional budgets, the senators questioned Price’s past support for deep payment reductions to both Medicare and Medicaid. Price currently serves as chairman of the House Budget Committee.

Sens. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) seized on the opportunity to press Price to uphold President Trump’s campaign pledge not to cut either federal health care safety net program. While acknowledging Trump’s preferences on Medicare and Medicaid, Price would not commit to any specific reforms to Medicare or Medicaid and instead preferred to highlight a proposal’s impact on patients as the appropriate metric to gauge a policy’s underlying success.

Healthcare Related Stocks

Prior to the HELP Committee confirmation hearing, CNN and other news media outlets discovered that over the last four years Price traded numerous health care-related stocks worth more than $300,000. Senate HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) as well as Sens. Al Franken (D-MN) and Warren, led the charge to gain greater clarity on these events.

Although the exchanges became testy at times, Price calmly answered all inquiries and stressed how the transactions complied with federal law and House ethical requirements. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who is also chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) all expressed support for the nominee’s character and adherence to legal and ethical standards. In addition, Price reiterated his commitment to divest of all of his health care stocks, if confirmed as HHS secretary.

The ACR’s Government Relations Office will closely monitor Rep. Price’s upcoming Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing. All ACR members are encouraged to monitor Advocacy in Action eNews for the latest news pertaining to the pending nomination.