January 27, 2016

Price Endures Lengthy Confirmation Hearing

Rep. Tom Price, MD (R-GA), President Donald Trump’s nominee to run the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), successfully navigated the official Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing on Jan. 24.

Price’s latest testimony marks the second time in six days he has appeared before a Senate Committee regarding his pending nomination. The secretary-designee completed a courtesy hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee on Jan. 18.

Once again, Senate Finance Committee members posed numerous questions related to Price’s overarching vision for HHS, the strategy for repealing and replacing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) — commonly referred to as Obamacare — preferences for reforming Medicare and Medicaid and his recent health care-related stock trades.

Further complicating Price’s most recent confirmation hearing was an executive order entitled “Minimizing the Economic Burden of PPACA Pending Repeal” and signed by Trump immediately following his inauguration. This broad yet imprecise directive grants key agency leaders, such as the secretary of HHS and commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) the authority and discretion, within the limits of current law, to stop enforcing key pieces of Obamacare.

The Senate Finance Committee attempted to glean further insight regarding Price’s interpretation of this vague and largely symbolic executive order. In particular, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) pressed Price to explain whether he felt the president’s directive permitted the HHS secretary to no longer enforce the individual mandate, especially prior to the release and implementation of a Republican health care reform policy alternative. Price, however, indicated he preferred to consult with existing HHS bureaucrats before committing to using the executive order to eliminate an important lynchpin of Obamacare.

In addition, Price provided few additional details regarding what Republicans might offer as an alternative to PPACA. While quick to acknowledge that he’s spoken with Trump about new ways to reform health care and their mutual desire to not abandon patients, Price was tight-lipped on specific policy proposals. The secretary-designee, however, did launch a critique that Obamacare focuses predominately on providing patients one-size-fits-all insurance coverage rather than access to needed care.

Price also provided many high-level responses to the other key themes discussed in the hearing. Despite a long history of criticizing HHS as being overly bureaucratic and burdensome to physicians, Price consistently expressed a strong sense of deference and support for the many career bureaucrats who staff this particular government department.

With respect to his vision for Medicare, questions posed by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Bob Casey (D-PA) pressured Price to defend past legislation and congressional budgets he authored that support efforts to expand health savings accounts or premium support proposals in lieu of traditional Medicare. The secretary-designee, however, used carefully worded responses to indicate that, if confirmed, he would focus primarily on implementing laws passed by Congress. In a particularly heated exchange, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) expressed frustration with Price’s perceived unwillingness to acknowledge his past support for replacing traditional Medicaid financing policies with federal block grants. When referencing Medicaid, the secretary-designee intentionally avoided use of the phrase “block grants” and preferred to focus more on crafting policies that improved patient outcomes.

Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) led the charge against Price’s purchase of health care stocks. In addition to chastising the nominee for underreporting the total financial value of his holdings within Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian biotech firm, Wyden accused Price of using his position as a member of Congress to both gain insider knowledge of key health care stocks and then pushing legislative agendas that would benefit these particular companies.

Price countered that his stock purchases were properly disclosed and permitted under both federal law and House ethical codes. In addition, the secretary-designee already pledged to divest all of his health care stock holdings after Senate confirmation.

Numerous Senate Finance Committee Republicans defended Price’s integrity and accused Senate Democrats of both hypocrisy and launching inappropriate attacks fueled by partisan disagreements. Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) offered particularly strong defenses of the secretary-designee.

Although at times contentious, Price successfully completed the hearings process and is widely expected to be confirmed as HHS secretary. Neither the Finance Committee nor the full Senate scheduled a confirmation vote for Price before Advocacy in Action’s planned Jan. 27 transmission.