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Trump’s pick for health secretary tells senators he will protect the vulnerable, but doesn’t say how

Tom Price

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price Health and Human Services at his Senate confirmation hearing in January.

(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) told the Senate Health Committee on Wednesday that he would protect vulnerable Americans if he is confirmed as President-elect Donald Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary.

But the six-term congressman did not detail how he would fulfill that pledge, including how he would replace the Affordable Care Act and how he would preserve coverage for the more than 100 million Americans who rely on Medicare, Medicaid and the healthcare law, commonly called Obamacare. Price has worked for years to roll back all three.

During a testy four-hour hearing on Capitol Hill — which also featured several heated exchanges about Price’s ethics — Price also repeatedly dodged questions from Democrats seeking assurance that he would preserve basic protections required by law.

Among other things, Obamacare bans lifetime limits on coverage, requires that health plans offer basic benefits such as substance abuse treatment and mandates that plans allow parents to keep their children on their insurance until they are 26.

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“My constituents are coming up to me with tears in their eyes wondering what the future holds for their healthcare,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the senior Democrat on the Health Committee, told Price.

Price, whom Trump has said is helping develop the new administration’s proposed Obamacare replacement, repeatedly assured lawmakers that Americans would be able to get the health insurance they want.

“It’s absolutely imperative that individuals that have health coverage be able to keep health coverage and move hopefully to greater choices and opportunities for them,” Price told the committee.

At one point, he even said he hopes the Obamacare replacement will cover more people than the current law.

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Obamacare has helped more than 20 million previously uninsured Americans gain coverage in the last three years. Repealing it would immediately result in 18 million people losing coverage, according to a new analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Price has been among the law’s most ardent critics and has pushed budget plans that would cut trillions of dollars from Medicare and Medicaid.

Like Trump, Price offered no indication how it will be possible to cover more people, preserve consumer protections and make health insurance cheaper all at the same time.

He appeared to support Trump’s repeated assurance that major changes for Medicare are not under consideration.

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.

However, Price refused to say Wednesday whether he would back efforts to expand the government’s authority to negotiate lower prices from drug makers, despite Trump’s recent calls to do so. Price made only a general commitment to help make drugs prices more “reasonable.”

Trump once made the cost of pharmaceuticals a central part of his campaign healthcare pitch. And at his first news conference last week, the president-elect said drug makers were “getting away with murder.”

“We’re the largest buyer of drugs in the world, and yet we don’t bid properly,” Trump said. “And we’re going to start bidding and we’re going to save billions of dollars over a period of time.”

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Republicans have long opposed allowing Medicare to use its market power to negotiate lower prices for seniors.

And the pharmaceutical industry, which also opposes price negotiation, has protected its interests by lavishing political contributions on members of Congress. Price himself has received tens of thousands of dollars from drug makers and has also invested heavily in industry stocks, records show.

Those ties featured prominently in Wednesday’s hearing, as Democrats pounded Price for repeatedly trading stocks in healthcare companies that were affected by his work in Congress.

As the hearing grew increasingly tense, several lawmakers reiterated calls for an independent investigation of Price for pushing legislation that increased the value of several stocks shortly after he bought them.

These Republicans hate Obamacare, but aren’t ready to give it up just yet »

“This whole administration is starting to look like a bit of a get-rich-quick scheme,” Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.) told Price, linking the congressman’s stock trading to Trump’s refusal to divest his business holdings.

Last year, Price bought up to $15,000 worth of stock in medical device maker Zimmer Biomet just a week before introducing legislation that would have delayed a new regulation that threatened the company’s bottom line, according to CNN.

Also last year, Price invested as much as $90,000 in six drug makers shortly before leading a legislative effort to derail an Obama administration proposal to control Medicare spending on cancer drugs, Time magazine reported.

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All six companies make cancer drugs that could have been affected by the regulation. And they all benefited when Price’s effort was successful.

Price repeatedly told senators that his stock purchases were initiated by his broker and that he was unaware of them.

“I am offended by the insinuation,” he told Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) after she outlined his extensive work to derail a proposed regulation even after he had been notified that his broker had bought stock in one of the healthcare companies that stood to benefit.

Several Democratic senators incredulously asked why Price had not directed his broker to avoid investing in companies that would be affected by his work. Price said he complied with congressional ethics rules.

In one of the oddest exchanges of the day, Price refused to acknowledge that human activity is responsible for climate change, despite widespread scientific consensus that this is the case.

“The climate is obviously changing,” Price told Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I). “The question from a scientific standpoint is what effect does human behavior and human activity have on that, and what we can do to mitigate that,” Price said. “And I believe that’s a question that needs to be studied and evaluated.”

A growing number of public health and physician groups are raising concerns about climate change’s impact on people’s health.

And at almost the same time as Price’s hearing, Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged to another Senate committee that human activity is, in fact, changing the climate.

noam.levey@latimes.com

Twitter: @noamlevey

ALSO:

Trump and the GOP are charging forward with Obamacare repeal, but few are eager to follow

Rolling out Obamacare was chaotic, but a repeal could be much worse

Trump pledged to protect Medicare. His choice for health secretary has other ideas


UPDATES:

2:10 p.m.: This article was updated with details and comments from the hearing.

8:35 a.m.: This article was updated with the start of the hearing. 

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.


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