Trump's Health secretary pick faces scrutiny over reform plans in Round 2 of Senate hearings

Rep. Tom Price, President Trump’s nominee to be Health and Human Services secretary, continued to offer assurances Tuesday that the new administration would provide Americans affordable health coverage.

But appearing before the Senate Finance Committee, the Georgia Republican provided little detail about what that coverage would look like and repeatedly refused to pledge that Americans could keep their current health plan under any replacement for the Affordable Care Act.

“What I commit to the American people is to keep patients at the center of healthcare,” Price told Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the senior Democrat on the committee.

“And what that means to me is making certain that every single American has access to affordable health coverage that will provide the highest quality healthcare.”

A frustrated Wyden shot back: “On the questions that I asked, Will the congressman commit that nobody will be worse off, nobody will lose coverage? We didn’t get an answer.”

Price, a former surgeon, got a more sympathetic reception from Republicans on the committee. They hailed his knowledge of health policy and readiness to head the mammoth health department, which oversees not only Medicare and Medicaid, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health.

“Dr. Price has the experience and qualifications necessary to effectively lead this large and diverse set of agencies,” Senate Finance Committee chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said Tuesday.

Price is expected to win confirmation. But the six-term congressman has become one of Trump’s most controversial nominees, in part because of his fierce criticism of the healthcare law, frequently called Obamacare, and his previous efforts to slash federal funding for Medicare and Medicaid, which provide coverage to more than 100 million elderly and poor Americans.

Democrats on the finance panel repeatedly quizzed Price about what would happen to patients.

Price kept his answers vague. In a round of questions about Medicare, Sen. Bob Menendez  (D-N.J.) asked: “Are you willing to commit that we won’t see increased costs or less coverage for seniors under a revision of Medicare that you might advocate or that the president might pursue?”

Price responded: “Our goal is to make certain that seniors have access to the highest quality healthcare possible at an affordable price.”

In the past, Price has been a strong proponent of increasing the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 and shifting more costs to patients by converting Medicare into a voucher system that would give beneficiaries a limited amount of money to shop for private health plans.

In another exchange about the basic set of health benefits that insurers must provide under Obamacare, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) asked:  “Can you assure us … that you’re prepared to make sure that Americans have quality insurance coverage to deal with issues such as preventive care, mental health services, addiction services and pediatric dental?”

Price responded: “What I commit to you, senator, is that we will do all that we can within the department with the incredible knowledge and expertise that is there to define whether or not the program is actually working.”

Price has argued that many of the people who have gained coverage through Obamacare are not getting needed healthcare because it is too expensive.

However, while some consumers are struggling with high insurance deductibles, there is growing evidence that Obamacare has made medical care more accessible for millions.

In fact, the share of adults who skipped care because of costs dropped by nearly one-fifth between 2013 and 2015, according to a recent report from the Commonwealth Fund.

Overall, the law is credited with expanding health coverage to more than 20 million previously uncovered Americans.

Democrats also have called for an independent investigation of Price for pushing legislation that increased the value of several stocks shortly after he bought them. Price denied any wrongdoing.

On Monday, a group of Senate Democrats wrote to the Securities and Exchange Commission, asking the federal regulator to look into possible legal violations, including the ban on insider trading.

“It is clear through his financial disclosures that Rep. Price actively traded in multiple pharmaceutical and other health sector stocks while having access to a great deal of nonpublic information about pending health legislation and regulations,” the senators wrote.

The finance committee is expected at a future meeting to recommend Price’s confirmation along party lines. That meeting has not yet been scheduled.

noam.levey@latimes.com

Twitter: @noamlevey


UPDATES:

2:05 p.m.: This article was updated after the hearing.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.

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