Rep. Tom Price, MD (R-Ga.), President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to serve as Health and Human Services Secretary, came under fire on Wednesday from Senate Democrats concerned about Republican plans to repeal Obamacare, which they say could leave millions of Americans without healthcare.
Although Wednesday’s proceeding before the Senate health committee was a courtesy hearing, a formal confirmation hearing by the Senate finance committee is scheduled for January 24 to vote on Price’s nomination, the event quickly devolved into partisan acrimony regarding the future of the Affordable Care Act.
“Congressman Price, I have serious concerns about your qualifications and plans for the department you hope to lead,” ranking member Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) told the nominee. “Just last week, you voted to begin the process of ripping apart our healthcare system without any plan to replace it, despite independent studies showing that nearly 30 million people would lose healthcare coverage.”
According to Murray, Price’s proposals for repealing Obamacare “would cause millions of people to lose coverage, force many to pay more for their care and leave people with pre-existing conditions vulnerable to insurance companies rejecting them or charging them more.”
However, Price responded during questioning that “nobody’s interested in pulling the rug out from under anybody,” adding that “it’s absolutely imperative that individuals that have 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 for themselves and for their families.
“I think there’s been a lot of talk about individuals losing health coverage—that is not our goal, nor is it our desire, nor is it our plan,” he exclaimed.
When pressed by Murray, Price said he shares President-elect Trump’s promise of “insurance for everybody,” while making the point that “it’s been always my stated goal and what I’ve worked on throughout my entire public career.”
In addition, Price noted that currently many Americans “have coverage but don’t have care because they don’t have access to the physicians they’d like to see, so choices are absolutely vital.” He added that affordability is also critical. “It doesn’t do you any good if you can’t afford health coverage. Accessibility is absolutely imperative.”
At the same time, Murray also took Price to task for his plan to overhaul Medicare in the first six to eight months of the Trump administration, an effort she contends would effectively end guaranteed full coverage that seniors and people with disabilities rely upon.
“You have put forward policies that would shift $1 trillion in Medicaid costs to states, squeezing their budgets and taking coverage away from struggling children, workers, and families,” said Murray.
Nonetheless, Price told the Senate committee: “We must strengthen our resolve to keep the promises our society has made to our senior citizens and to those who are most in need of care and support—that means saving and strengthening and securing Medicare for today’s beneficiaries and future generations.” Likewise, he said that America must ensure that its Medicaid population “has access to the highest quality care.”
In response to a question from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Price said he has no reason to believe that Trump has changed his earlier public comments vowing not to cut Medicare and Medicaid.
Murray pointed out that Trump’s position is that Medicare should be able to negotiate lower drug prices for seniors. However, she charged that Price has “repeatedly opposed efforts to do so” and “even went so far as to call legislation on this issue ‘a solution in search of a problem.’ ”
Yet, Price told the Senate committee: “You have my commitment to work with you and others to make certain that the drug pricing is reasonable and that individuals across this land have access to the medications that they need.”
As for the overall implications for the country of repealing Obamacare, Price added that “the last thing we want to do is go from a Democrat healthcare system to a Republican healthcare system—our goal is to go from what we see as a Democratic healthcare system to an American healthcare system that recognizes the needs of all.
“Should I be given the honor of leading the Health and Human Services, along with the President, we look forward to working with Congress to come forward with that plan,” Price told the senators.
On the issue of electronic health records and the Meaningful Use program, Price said he’s had “more than one physician” tell him that the “final regulations and rules related to Meaningful Use were the final straw for them” causing them to quit the program.
He contends that it’s imperative to ensure that the metrics used under Meaningful Use “actually correlate with the quality of care that’s being provided, as opposed to so many things that are required right now of the physician or the provider that make it so they are wasting their time documenting these things so that it fits into some matrix somewhere, but it doesn’t result in higher quality of care or outcomes for patients.”
As a member of Congress, Price introduced the Meaningful Use Hardship Relief Act of 2015 (H.R. 3940) and was an early co-sponsor of the FLEX-IT Act (H.R. 5001) to ease the burdens on providers in adopting health IT so that they can better focus on patient care.
“We’ve turned many physicians and other providers into data entry clerks, and it detracts from their productivity and their ability to provide quality care,” Price concluded.
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