Congress

HHS nominee Price pledges only ‘access’ to health coverage, far short of Trump’s ideal

Health and Human Services Secretary-designate, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., accompanied by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who introduced him, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Health and Human Services Secretary-designate, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., accompanied by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who introduced him, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. AP

President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to lead his efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act is stopping short of his would-be boss’s promise to extend “insurance for all.”

At his first Senate hearing, Trump’s nominee for health and human services secretary, Rep. Tom Price pledged that he is seeking “access to” health care coverage for all Americans.

“I look forward to working with you to make certain that every single American has access to the highest quality care and coverage that is possible,” Price, a Georgia Republican, told members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Access isn’t the same as coverage, said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent.

“ ‘Has access to’ does not mean that they are guaranteed health care,” Sanders said. “I have access to buying a $10 million home. I don’t have the money to do that.”

Price’s stance aligns more closely with that of House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who also has stressed “access” to health care, not necessarily coverage for all. And it underscores the differences still to be resolved among Republicans, who, even as they race to repeal Obamacare, have yet to coalesce around a way to replace the law that has expanded health insurance coverage to 20 million Americans.

Price suggested a plan could come from the White House by March as Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., urged caution.

“It’s not about developing a quick fix,” Alexander said. “It’s about working toward long-term solutions that work for everyone.”

The exchanges came as Democrats opened fire on Price, hoping to slow his nomination – and with it Republicans’ fast-track efforts to wipe out President Barack Obama’s prize health care law. Price is expected to play a leading role in working with Congress and the Trump White House to repeal the 2010 law and replace it. He will go before the Senate Finance Committee next Tuesday for his official confirmation hearing in what is shaping up to be a pitched battle as Republicans look to assuage mounting worries among voters and even some lawmakers that they lack a replacement.

Democrats don’t have the votes to block Price, but for nearly four hours they sought to raise questions about his policy prescriptions and his voting record. And they sought to poke holes in his ethics, citing news stories that Price had traded health care stocks even as he pushed legislative proposals that would benefit those companies.

I am very frightened of what you are going to do, and so are millions of Americans.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.

Under questioning from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Price said he had directed a broker to buy the stocks of a tiny Australian drug maker after learning about the company from Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., an investor and member of the company’s board.

Murray questioned whether he believed it was appropriate, given that Congress was voting on the 21st Century Cures Act, which could affect drug developers such as the company, Innate Immunotherapeutics.

“Well, that’s not what happened,” Price said, adding that he’d had no access to “non-public” information about the country but was impressed by its work on preventing a form of multiple sclerosis.

At issue is a 2012 law that clarifies that federal laws against insider trading apply to members of Congress and their staffs. The STOCK Act requires regular disclosures, and Price said the only reason Democrats knew about the stock trades was that he’d reported them.

Republicans quickly rose to his defense, accusing Democrats of launching a “hypocritical” attack. After Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., questioned why a doctor would own stock in a tobacco company – in Price’s case, Altria – Price’s fellow Georgian, Sen. Johnny Isakson, suggested Republicans would be combing through Democrats’ holdings as well.

“I’m sure Sen. Franken had no idea that he owned Philip Morris when he made those statements,” Isakson said. “Not to embarrass Sen. Franken, but it’s entirely possible for any of us to have someone make an investment on our behalf.”

He’s the right man, for the right job, at the right time for America.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.

Price said his financial records had been cleared by the Office of Government Ethics and that he’d agreed, if confirmed, that he’d drop his financial stake in more than 40 companies within 90 days to avoid possible conflicts of interest.

Price also took a different tack than Trump has on the cost of prescription drugs. Trump over the weekend endorsed forcing drug companies to negotiate the costs of medications in the Medicare and Medicaid programs, but Price sidestepped the issue.

Asked by Sanders about the cost of prescription drugs in the U.S., Price said he’d want “to get to the root cause of that.”

Democrats also pressed Price about Trump’s repeated promises during the campaign that he would not cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. Price sidestepped Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who asked whether he would promise not to cut “a dollar” from the programs, saying there were other “metrics” to measure the programs.

Price should take Trump’s campaign promises, she said, and “post that above your desk in your new office, because Americans will be watching.”

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

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