President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for health secretary said Wednesday that access and affordability were his goals for revamping health care, and he offered assurances that the new administration is not planning to launch a Medicare overhaul.
Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions at the start of a confirmation process that at times turned contentious.
He said the health care system is losing focus on patients, its first priority.
He answered “absolutely not,” when asked if the incoming administration intends to tackle Medicare while trying to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law and replace it with a GOP version.
As for the coverage goal of a new health law, Price said no one is interested in pulling the rug out from under any American. Pressed on prescription drug costs, he said pricing decisions by pharmaceutical companies sometimes don’t seem to make sense. But Price stopped short of endorsing direct negotiations between the government and drug companies.
The committee chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., praised the selection of Price, an orthopedic surgeon-turned-lawmaker, to head the Department of Health and Human Services. Alexander also warned fellow Republicans not to attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement.
But the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, said she has “serious concerns” about Price’s qualifications.
With coverage for millions of people at stake, Price is facing pointed questions about Trump’s health policies — and his own investments in health care companies.
Price is largely a known quantity on Capitol Hill, but Trump’s bottom line on health care remains a mystery for Democrats and Republicans alike. While Trump campaigned on repealing Obama’s law, at times he’s sounded more like a liberal. For example, he made recent comments about providing insurance for everyone and taking on the drug companies.
Trump said in an interview aired Wednesday on Fox that his approach would offer coverage through private insurers for people who cannot afford it.
“Nobody is going to be dying on the streets with a President Trump,” he said. Trump offered no details. He said his plan would “probably” turn Medicaid over to the states in the form of block grants to cover low-income people.
Price, 62, represents Atlanta’s northern suburbs and leads the House Budget Committee. A budget hawk and a social conservative, he drafted his own plan to replace Obama’s health law, which now provides coverage for about 20 million people. It would have saved taxpayers money but covered fewer people, according to an outside analysis.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., pressed Price on whether Trump intends to keep promises repeatedly made during the presidential campaign not to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
“I have no reason to believe he’s changed his position,” Price said.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., questioned Price about prescription drug costs.
He acknowledged that there are “certain areas where drug price increases seem to have little basis in rational actions.” But pressed on whether he would support Trump’s call for Medicare to negotiate with drug companies, Price tried to sidestep. If confirmed, Trump would be his boss, Price said, but he also suggested that the idea of negotiations needs further study.
Democrats also challenged Price on his extensive stock portfolio. His investments have prompted questions about potential conflicts of interest and calls for a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of possible insider trading.
Last week, Price signed a government ethics agreement pledging to sell his stocks, but that hasn’t stopped the questions.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., suggested Price got a special deal in the purchase of stock in an Australian drug company, Innate Immunotherapeutics. But Price insisted he other investors also had the same option.
“I think our job is to avoid the appearance of conflict,” Franken chastised. “And you have not done that.”
Republicans bristled at such questions.
“To question whether you are honest is insulting,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told Price.
The department Price would lead has a $1 trillion budget and about 80,000 employees. It runs major health insurance programs, including Medicare, Medicaid and HealthCare.gov. Price would also be ultimately responsible for the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Generally, Republicans want to overhaul the health care system to shift a greater financial responsibility and risk to individuals. They argue that would help create a genuine market for medical care, leading consumers to demand lower prices for services.
Republicans would loosen many Obama-era regulations on insurers, such as limits on how much older customers can be charged, and requirements that certain benefits be covered. They would cap the tax-free status of employer-provided health insurance. And Price favors limitations on jury awards in malpractice cases.
The Senate panel is one of two Senate committees that will hold hearings on Price. The Finance Committee, which actually votes on reporting the nomination to the Senate floor, will conduct a hearing next week.