5 Things To Listen For At The Hearing With Trump's HHS Nominee

Jan 18, 2017
Originally published on January 18, 2017 2:10 pm

On Wednesday, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., goes before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in his first grilling since he was nominated to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. This isn't an official confirmation hearing. That comes Jan. 24, before the Senate Finance Committee. But with outspoken senators such as Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on the HELP committee, Price is certain to face tough questions.

Here are five things to look out for:


Price, who is an orthopedic surgeon, has been an ardent opponent of the Affordable Care Act since it was passed in 2010. He complains that the law gets in the way of good care. Democrats on the committee are certain to grill him on his own proposal for an Obamacare replacement, one that offers a fixed tax credit to buy coverage no matter your income.

They'll also likely take the opportunity to put Price on the spot for comments made by Donald Trump on Sunday. The president-elect told The Washington Post "we're going to have insurance for everybody," but he provided no details on how he would make this happen.

Then on Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office released an analysis projecting that the partial repeal of Obamacare envisioned by Republicans in Congress would result in 18 million people losing their insurance immediately, and 32 million losing it long term.

"Rep. Price's approach is moving us in exactly the wrong direction," Sen. Bernie Sanders said after meeting with Price on Tuesday.

Those stocks

Price's financial disclosures show he was an active trader of individual company stocks, including shares in pharmaceutical and medical device companies. Several news outlets have reported that Price took actions in Congress to benefit medical companies that contributed to his campaign, and that he bought shares in some companies just before government actions boosted their value.

For example, CNN reported Tuesday that Price bought shares in Zimmer Biomet, which makes knee and hip implants, just before he introduced a bill to delay new regulations that could have hurt the company's profits.

Trump transition spokesman Philip Blando said in an emailed statement that "these allegations are false."

Medicare reform

Price was head of the House Budget Committee when it released A Balanced Budget for a Stronger America in March 2016. That plan calls for Medicare reform in which private insurers compete with Medicare for patients, a system many opponents described as "privatizing" Medicare. The details of the plan were included in Speaker Paul Ryan's outline last summer to replace the Affordable Care Act.

The proposal actually says that traditional Medicare will remain an option, though many analysts believe that the ultimate goal is to move most seniors to private insurance by making Medicare an expensive option with fewer benefits.

Democrats have said they're eager to take on Republicans over Medicare because the program is very popular.

Drug prices

President-elect Donald Trump sent drug company stocks into a tailspin last week when he promised in a news conference that he would have Medicare negotiate for lower drug prices with the pharmaceutical industry. Today the federal health program for the elderly is barred by law from negotiating for lower prices, even though it accounts for 29 percent of the approximately $325 billion the U.S. spends on pharmaceuticals each year.

Democrats have long advocated for Medicare to be able to negotiate better deals for itself, so this may be one area where the toughest questions come from Republicans. Sanders on Tuesday told reporters he plans to ask Price about drug prices in the hearing.

His medical practice

Price's ethics disclosures show he intends to sell off all his stocks. However, he plans to maintain his interest in his private medical practice outside Atlanta. As HHS secretary he'll have a lot of power over physicians, most directly by having power over Medicare and the rates it sets for doctors.

Price has promised to recuse himself from any government decision that directly affects his business, but it will be tough to avoid any decisions that impact physicians.

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Now to one of Donald Trump's most politically important Cabinet picks. Georgia Congressman Tom Price goes before the Senate Health Committee today to make the case that he should be the next secretary of Health and Human Services. Price is a doctor, an orthopedic surgeon, in fact. And he's worked on budget and health care issues during his time in Congress.

He's been a vocal critic of Obamacare. So Democrats are sure to grill him about Republicans' plans to repeal and replace the law. And as NPR's Alison Kodjak reports, Price is also likely to face questions about his own finances.

ALISON KODJAK, BYLINE: Price's ethics reports show he traded in dozens of stocks while he served in Congress. Those include shares of pharmaceutical companies and medical device makers. Several news outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, have reported that Price traded in those stocks while he sponsored legislation that could have increased their value. Senator Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the committee, is promising to ask Price a lot of questions.

PATTY MURRAY: We want to know who he met with and when, whether the transactions in question were initiated by a broker or by Congressman Price himself, what, if any, nonpublic information Congressman Price had when those transactions were made and exactly how much profit he made from each transaction.

KODJAK: Murray says the committee needs to ensure that Price was acting on behalf of the public rather than himself. That's the standard for all government employees. A Trump transition spokesman says Price's stocks are held in a broker-directed account, and the broker buys and sells without Price's knowledge. He also points out that some Democratic senators also hold individual company stocks in their portfolios. The spokesman says the Office of Government Ethics has determined that Price complied with congressional disclosure rules.

Along with ethics, Price is going to have to talk about the incoming administration's plans for Obamacare. Lawmakers have already taken steps to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And Price has been a vocal opponent of the law. He's proposed a replacement that would offer people tax credits to buy insurance on the private market. But those credits would often be smaller than the subsidies offered under Obamacare. Price's plan also promotes the use of tax-free health savings accounts to pay for medical costs.

Senator Bernie Sanders, who wants universal health care, says Price's ideas will result in fewer people being covered. He spoke to reporters yesterday just after meeting with the nominee.


BERNIE SANDERS: My major concern is that I believe his approach would make a difficult situation right now even worse.

KODJAK: And lurking in the background will be the words of President-elect Donald Trump, who said a few days ago that he too wants health care for everyone. But Trump didn't give any details on how that would happen. Alison Kodjak, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.