WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for health secretary, Representative Tom Price, promised in his nomination hearing Wednesday that the new administration will not strip health coverage from millions of Americans if Republicans make good on their vow to repeal the seven-year-old Affordable Care Act.
But Price offered no specifics on how the incoming administration will manage the feat of eliminating the health law while making sure individuals still have access to affordable insurance. His assurances did nothing to alleviate confusion and tensions over Trump’s core campaign pledge to kill President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment.
“Nobody is interested in pulling the rug out from under anybody,” declared Price, a Georgia Republican who has been one of the fiercest critics of the health law. “We believe that it is absolutely imperative that individuals [who] have health coverage be able to keep health coverage and move, hopefully, to greater choices and opportunities for them to gain the kind of coverage that they want.”
“There has been a lot of talk about individuals losing health coverage,” Price continued. “That is not our goal nor our desire nor is it our plan.”
But Price offered little beyond gauzy platitudes about the goals guiding the GOP health care replacement. Those core aims, Price said, would include a system that provides high-quality coverage that all Americans can afford, spur innovation, and ensure that patients have more choice in who is treating them.
Under friendly Republican questioning, Price said the GOP alternative could even expand the number of people with insurance coverage beyond the Affordable Care Act , which has been beset by hefty premium increases in some markets. He specifically pointed to health-savings accounts — where consumers are allowed to set aside money in tax-free accounts to pay for health care costs — and high-deductible catastrophic coverage plans as two possible ways to help accomplish that.
The Affordable Care Act has provided coverage to an estimated 20 million people since Congress passed it in 2010.
Price, who would head the Department of Health and Human Services, also said the Trump administration doesn’t plan to tackle an overhaul of Medicare as part of the legislation. But when pressed by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to say whether he would support or oppose cuts to Medicare or Medicaid, he declined to say.
Price’s nomination has alarmed Democrats and supporters of Medicare and Medicaid because he wrote bills as a congressman that would partially privatize them. Trump repeatedly promised throughout the campaign that he would not cut the programs — promises Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who ran for the Democratic nomination, read verbatim to Price at the hearing.
Price fielded Democrats’ hostile questions politely and peppered his answers with personal anecdotes and biographical references. But his demeanor belies the steely partisan warrior he has shown himself to be in his six terms in the House.
More than anything, Wednesday’s hearing underscored the sharp partisan divides over health care that have raged since the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010.
Republicans and Democrats sounded like inhabitants of two different planets during the so-called courtesy hearing held by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. The committee doesn’t have jurisdiction to vote on Price’s nomination. That will fall to the Senate Finance Committee, which is slated to hear from Price on Jan. 24.
Republicans praised the 62-year-old former orthopedic surgeon as perhaps the most qualified choice possible to lead the agency that will be key to dismantling the Affordable Care Act . They described the current system as collapsing under its system of subsidies and health care marketplaces in individual states.
They defended Price against attacks from Democrats, who have raised concerns about his stock investments in health care companies while he worked on legislation that would benefit those companies.
Reflecting the general GOP tone, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch called the conflict-of-interest charges against Price “a hypocritical attack on your good character. And I personally resent it.”
Under intense questioning by Warren on whether he profited from his official actions, Price responded, “I’m offended by that insinuation.’’
Democrats on the committee directed sharp questions at Price, painting him as an idealogue bent on ripping health insurance benefits from millions of Americans and the latest conflict-riddled candidate to join an administration that’s starting to look like a “get rich quick scheme,” as Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy characterized it.
Democrats repeatedly highlighted benefits the Affordable Care Act has provided and warned about popular provisions that could disappear, depending on the ultimate replacement plan Republicans unveil. Among them: the ability of children to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26; the ban on the ability of insurers to deny coverage to someone with a preexisting condition; and the elimination of lifetime coverage caps.
Trump has said he wants to keep provisions on preexisting conditions and children under 26. He also told the Washington Post recently that he is working on his own replacement plan that will provide “insurance for everybody,” stirring up more confusion about what the Republican plan is.
Democrats tried their hardest to pin Price down on details of the GOP replacement plan, largely to no avail.
“I hope you can understand our frustration around trying to divine the nature of this replacement plan,” Murphy told Price. He said the descriptions offered by Trump and Republicans of what their plan will accomplish sound “eerily familiar” to popular parts of the Affordable Care Act — even covering more people — “and yet we do not get any specifics as to how that is going to occur.”
Price did his best to duck questions from multiple Democrats seeking to tie him to Trump’s recent comments that he wants to allow Medicare to be able to negotiate prescription drug prices. It’s something Medicare is prohibited from doing now and is generally anathema to Republicans.
Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin, tried several times to elicit a yes or no answer from Price on whether he would work to repeal that ban.
“It depends,” Price said at one point, saying he’d have to consult with various parties, including Trump.
“I think we need to find solutions to the challenges” of people being able to afford medication, he said. “It may be that one of those is changing the way that the negotiations” currently work.
The intensity of emotion exposed by the health care issue was clear in the hearing.
“Thank you for holding this anger management hearing,” Kansas Republican Pat Roberts quipped. “I truly hope my colleagues feel better at least for one day after purging themselves of their concern, their frustration, and their anger.”
Democrats were equally tough. Frustrated by Price’s refusal to promise not to cut Medicare and Medicaid, Warren offered this advice to Price: “You might want to print out President-elect Trump’s statement — ‘I am not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid’ — and post that above your desk in your new office, because Americans will be watching to see if you follow through on that promise.”