Democrats Accuse Trump's HHS Nominee of Ducking Questions

January 24, 2017

Democratic lawmakers pressed President Donald Trump's choice for secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) today on whether he was out of step with his boss's stated vision of healthcare, which promises "insurance for everybody" and no Medicare cuts.

During a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the nominee, Rep. Tom Price, MD (R-GA), Democratic senators called attention to past legislation supported by the orthopedic surgeon that would reduce Medicare spending by an estimated $500 billion over 10 years by giving seniors premium subsidies to buy private insurance plans. They also noted that Dr Price, just recently chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee, advocated capping federal contributions to state Medicaid programs in the form of block grants, estimated to reduce Medicaid spending by $1 trillion or so over 10 years.

Health and Human Services Secretary-designate, Rep. Tom Price, MD (R-GA), at today's Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing. Source: Andrew Harnik/AP

Over and over, Democrats asked Dr Price if he would guarantee that in the Trump administration's efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and overhaul Medicare and Medicaid no one would lose coverage or existing benefits in keeping with Trump's promises. Dr Price replied that he was committed to giving "accessible and affordable care to every single American" and that he would implement the legislative solutions worked out by Congress to achieve those goals.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said Dr Price had ducked the hard questions about what he and the Trump administration would do. Likewise, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) expressed frustration. "I don't understand why you want to divorce yourself from your record," said McCaskill. She and other Democrats challenged Dr Price's description of his future role at HHS as somebody who would merely carry out the will of Congress, noting that Trump was relying on him to help craft new healthcare policies. "You're going to have more than an administrative role," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ). "If past is prologue, then your views as a legislator are of a concern to me."

Dr Price received a warm reception, however, from Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee, which will vote shortly on whether to recommend that the full Senate confirm his nomination. Committee Chair Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said the physician had the experience and qualifications to run a federal department with more than a $1 trillion budget that "touches more of the US economy and affects the daily lives of more Americans than any other part of the US government."

"It's a welcome relief to have someone in your profession in this very important role," added Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA). "In dealing with CMS [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] and HHS, I think the bureaucracy has been short on hands-on information that people ought to have."

There were a few moments in the hearing when Dr Price said things that presumably satisfied his Democratic critics. In Congress, Dr Price voted on several occasions against expanding the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which is set to expire this September. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) asked if he would counsel Trump to extend CHIP funding for another 5 years. "I believe it ought to be extended," Dr Price replied, adding that Congress might as well give it 8 more years instead of 5.

Dr Price also fielded a series of questions about medical science from Menendez that sought to expose whether he held beliefs entertained by the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a fringe medical society he belongs to.

"Do you believe that abortions cause breast cancer? Menendez asked. "Science is relatively clear that it does not," Dr Price answered.

"Do vaccines cause autism?"

"The evidence is that it does not."

Nominee Attributes Stock Underreporting to Clerical Error

During his confirmation process, Dr Price has come under fire from Democrats for possible conflicts of interest on account of his investments, with more than $300,000 in healthcare-related companies, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Dr Price counters that he is not using his legislative office to benefit companies he owns stock in, and that he has disclosed his investments as required by law.

Two investments by Dr Price stand out in the controversy. On March 17, 2016, he purchased roughly $2,700 worth of shares in Zimmer Biomet, which makes hip and knee implants and other medical devices. Six days later, he introduced legislation delaying the implementation of a Medicare bundled-payment program for hip and knee replacements that threatened to make the company less profitable. Zimmer Biomet's political action committee contributed $2,000 to his 2016 re-election campaign, $1,000 before and $1,000 after the legislation's introduction, according to a CNN investigation.

Dr Price has denied that he spearheaded the legislation out of financial self-interest, explaining that his broker made the purchase unbeknownst to him, and that he didn't learn about his stake in Zimmer Biomet until April 4, 2016, roughly 2 weeks after he introduced the legislation. Furthermore, his work to delay the bundled-payment program for orthopedic surgeons, which he considered bad for both patients and physicians, dated back to 2015, according to Dr Price.

With another healthcare company, however, Dr Price bought the stock on his own in what Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) has characterized as a "sweetheart deal." The investment was in Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian company developing a drug for secondary progressive multiple sclerosis in hopes of testing and marketing it in the United States. Dr Price told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on January 18 that he had first learned about Innate Immunotherapeutics from Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY), who sits on the company's board of directors. After a small initial investment, Dr Price participated in a private placement of stock along with Dr Collins and 18 other "sophisticated US investors" in August 2016 in which they received a 12% discount compared with the "volume weighted average market price" over 10 trading days prior to June 9, according to an company proxy statement.

The suspected conflict of interest here is that Dr Price later voted for the successful passage of the 21st Century Cures Act, designed to speed up the development and approval of new drugs and medical devices. His Republican colleague Collins, the largest single shareholder in the Australian company at 17%, had helped draft the legislation.

To avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest, Dr Price has vowed to sell his holdings in Innate Immunotherapeutics, Zimmer Biomet, and 41 other companies should he become confirmed as HHS secretary. Some Democrats, however, have questioned why he or his broker chose to invest in healthcare stocks in the first place. They've asked the Independent Office of Congressional Ethics and the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate. Congressional Republicans, in turn, vouched for Dr Price's integrity and characterized the Democratic charges as political theater.

The latest development in the investment controversy aired in today's Senate Finance Committee hearing. Under prodding by Wyden, Dr Price acknowledged that he had initially underreported the amount of Innate Immunotherapeutics stock purchased in the private placement. He attributed the mistake, now corrected, to a clerical error.

"Everything I did was ethical, above-board, legal, and transparent," Dr Price told lawmakers.

Wyden said Dr Price's holdings in the Australian company are now worth more than $500,000.

Follow Robert Lowes on Twitter @LowesRobert

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