In the courtesy confirmation hearing taking place in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee in the United States Senate on Wednesday, Rep. Tom Price has been undergoing very rigorous questioning from Democratic senators, while receiving praise and support from Republican senators, as he seeks to become the next Secretary of Health and Human Services, as nominated by President-elect Donald Trump.
Rep. Price (R-Ga.) was introduced to the HELP Committee by HELP Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who, as he began his questioning of Price, made a series of comments about the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which Republicans in Congress are attempting to repeal and replace. Alexander, who is one of two key Senate committee chairs with jurisdiction over any action the Senate might take to repeal or even modify the ACA, stated that he supported repeal “when there are concrete practical reforms in place that give Americans affordable access to healthcare. It’s not about developing a quick fix,” he added. That statement will be read widely for its possible import in that evolving situation.
Meanwhile, turning to. Price, Alexander asserted that “The individual health insurance market in Tennessee is collapsing,” placing the blame for what he characterized as a “collapse” on the ACA. “I’m told that we need to have a rescue plan in place by March 1. Do you agree that the market is collapsing and that we need a rescue plan and that March 1 is an important date for action?” Price agreed, saying that “Something is going badly wrong out there, and it's imperative for us to put things into place” to fix that situation.
Several times throughout the hearing, Price reiterated the six pillars of what he thinks make up an effective healthcare system: affordability; accessibility; quality; innovation; responsibility; and choices. When asked by Alexander about ACA “repeal and replace” processes, Price hammered home these six pillars time after time. He was asked multiple times about the fear of Americans losing healthcare coverage with whatever new plan the Trump administration puts in place, to which he said, “That is not our goal, nor is it our desire,“ adding, "options will need to move out of D.C. and into the hands of patients and their families.” The two Congressman together said that if Price were to get confirmed as HHS Secretary, his federal healthcare plan would likely be revealed sometime in February.
Sen. Patty Murray questions Rep. Tom Price in a HELP Committee hearing on Wednesday
Pressed hard on the question of whether he regarded healthcare, and health insurance coverage, as a right, by Sen. Bernie Sanders (D.-Vt.), Price averred that he supported “access” to affordable health insurance for Americans. Sanders shot back that “I have access to buying a $10 million house, but that doesn’t mean that I can afford to buy one.” When Sanders pressed him on the promise made during the presidential election campaign by Donald Trump, and whether President-elect Trump would honor his campaign promise to not cut or harm Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid programs, he said that he had no reason to believe that Trump would do so.
Sanders and Price continued a contentious discourse in which the Senator said the U.S. is the “only major country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee healthcare to all people as a right.” Price said, “We are a compassionate society,” a statement which Sanders refuted. “No, we’re not. Compared to other countries, we are not particularly compassionate,” Sanders said. Price then noted that other countries’ healthcare system decisions have consequences. “I want to make sure every American has access to healthcare,” he said. Sanders replied, “That’s not a guarantee.”
Moments earlier, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) had criticized Republicans for “rushing” the confirmation process, and told Price that she had “serious concerns about your qualifications and plans for the department you hope to lead.” She noted that, “Just last week, you voted to begin the process of ripping apart our healthcare system without any plan to replace it,” Murray said. “My constituents are coming up to me with tears in their eyes, wondering what the future holds for their healthcare given the chaos Republican efforts could cause.”
Murray also questioned Price very closely on his investments in healthcare firms. Among Price’s holdings are some in Innate Immunotherapeutics, Ltd., a biomedical company in which another lawmaker, Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) is a major shareholder. According to his financial disclosure statements, on Aug. 31 he bought between $50,001 and $100,000 worth of stock the firm, as noted in an article in the online publication STAT. Murray strongly challenged Price’s explanations of how he came to invest in Innate Immunotherapeutics. That involvement has loomed as an issue that could potentially hurt Price’s chances as HHS Secretary.
Indeed, throughout the hearing, Price was pressed by Democratic senators about the Innate Immunotherapeutics investment as well his purchase of shares in medical device manufacturer Zimmer Biomet last year. A CNN report this week noted that “Price bought between $1,001 to $15,000 worth of shares last March in Zimmer Biomet, and “less than a week after the transaction,” Price introduced legislation “that would have delayed until 2018 a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) regulation that industry analysts warned would significantly hurt Zimmer Biomet financially once fully implemented.”
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