As expected, Congressman Tom Price (R-GA), Health and Human Services Secretary nominee, faced intense scrutiny at today’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee. Despite President Trump’s recent Executive Order instructing his Administration to facilitate the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by “minimizing any unwarranted economic and regulatory burdens,” Price would not reveal whether penalties would be removed for people who don’t purchase insurance. He said that our current system works for the government, but not patients. As Secretary, he would ensure that everyone has “access to affordable coverage.”
Throughout the hearing, Price skirted questions about the replacement plan. He declined to reveal any potential changes to ACA. Instead, he stressed that it was Congress’ responsibility to devise an ACA replacement plan. He maintained that, as Secretary, he would merely implement the plan passed by Congress.
Ranking Member, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), referenced Price’s previous ACA replacement legislation during questioning. He expressed concerns that repeal would destroy the market and urged Price to keep patients at the “center of healthcare, not money or special interests.” Price said he wouldn’t abandon individuals with pre-existing conditions, but stopped short of guaranteeing coverage. He repeated his desire to make sure every American had an “option and opportunity for care.”
In his own plan, Price has supported privatizing Medicare in the past, but denied plans to privatize it in the replacement. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) pointed out that seniors are “petrified about a privatized Medicare.” When questioned on Medicaid, Price would not reveal whether the replacement plan would eliminate the ACA’s Medicaid expansion. Despite his past efforts to change Medicaid into block grants, which would provide money directly to states and allow them to make coverage decisions, Price said he would defer to Congress.
Price weighed in on a successful nursing program. Sen. Tim Scott, (R-SC), highlighted the Nurse Family Partnership, a Medicaid-funded program which pays to send nurses into the homes of low-income, first-time mothers. While he was impressed with the program, Price pointed out that Medicaid “coverage doesn’t always equal care.” Price did share that he favors an eight year extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Price has been a vocal critic of the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation (CMMI), which pays providers based on quality and outcomes. He said CMMI should incentivize innovation and benefit patients, but that CMMI is “off track a bit” in that it dictates how providers must practice without exception.
Senate Democrats questioned Price’s judgment for receiving discounts and actively trading health care stocks. Price said everything he did was ethical and legal. The discounts, he said, “were available to every single individual that was an investor at the time.” Despite the testy exchanges around ethics, there was bipartisan support for improving access to high-quality healthcare in rural America. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) pointed out that the rural healthcare delivery system was “under stress.” He asked if Price would reduce documentation burdens on providers and hospitals. Price agreed, noting that government sometimes puts up roadblocks to expanding technology, especially in rural areas. He said we ought to be incentivizing innovation for patients to receive the highest quality care. Price said telemedicine is improving lives of patients in rural communities. If confirmed, he promised to strengthen rural healthcare and establish less burdensome regulations.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, (R-UT), praised Price’s “performance.” He said Price has the experience and qualifications to effectively lead HHS. He plans to schedule a committee vote to send Price’s nomination to the full Senate for final vote as soon as possible.