The headlines out of Wednesday’s Senate confirmation hearings on President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services were two-fold:
One was that Trump would make good on his repeated campaign pledge not to cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security in restructuring the government health care system. The other was that for all the confusion surrounding the GOP efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the 20 million or so Americans currently enrolled in Obamacare or expanded Medicaid won’t get shafted.
“One of the important things that we need to convey to the American people is that nobody is interested in pulling the rug out from under anybody,” Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), Trump’s nominee to become the next secretary of HHS and help orchestrate the dismantling of Obamacare, said during a four-hour hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
“We believe that 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 to gain the kind of coverage they want for themselves and their families,” he added.
Questioned by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) about Trump’s intentions to keep his campaign promises to safeguard Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, Price said that while he hasn’t had extensive discussions with Trump about those comments, “I have no reason to believe that he has changed his position.”
“So you are telling us that to the best of your knowledge, Mr. Trump will not cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” Sanders persisted. “As I say, I have no reason to believe that position has changed,” Price replied.
Price, a wealthy orthopedic surgeon from suburban Atlanta and a Tea Party Republican, had his work cut out for him in trying to calm the growing unease within his own party over the perilous effort to topple Obamacare without triggering chaos in the insurance market and health care industry and angering millions of Americans threatened with the loss of their coverage.
Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) have boldly predicted that Congress would swiftly and simultaneously approve the repeal of key provisions of Obamacare and adopt a comprehensive replacement plan that would guarantee Americans less expensive premiums and copayments and greater choices of coverage. What’s more, Trump promised in an interview with The Washington Post last weekend to extend health care insurance to “everybody,” and not just the 90 percent or so of non-retired Americans who currently are covered by Obamacare, Medicaid or employer-provided healthcare.
But if the Republicans get it wrong or fail to successfully choreograph their efforts, 18 million people could lose their insurance within a year and see their premiums skyrocket even more than now, according to a report released Tuesday by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
The CBO report was a bombshell of sorts, rattling the nerves of more moderate Republicans such as Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, while providing the Democrats with additional fodder in making their case that the Republicans are recklessly leading the country down a dangerous path without a realistic plan or roadmap in hand.
Price was sent into today’s hearing by the Trump camp both to calm the political waters and defend himself against mounting Democratic criticism that he engaged in insider trading as a House member by buying stock in companies that stood to benefit from legislation he introduced or voted for. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Price had traded stock worth more than $300,000 over the past four years, including shares in at least two companies that were directly affected by his legislative action as a member of the Ways and Means Committee.
An array of influential GOP figures, including Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the HELP Committee Chair, and Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch of Utah, did their best to defend Price from sharp attacks from Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington State, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Al Franken of Minnesota who all raised concerns that Price violated federal ethics rules in his stock transactions.
Hatch, whose committee will hold hearings on Price next, gushed that “Over the years I have found [Price] always to be very, very knowledgeable, very upfront, very straight forward, very honest and somebody who really understands health care systems in this country.
“You are just perfectly situated to be able to help turn it around so that it works,” Hatch told the nominee.
But Franken and other Democrats argued just the opposite – that Price, a long-time foe of Obamacare who has drafted replacement legislation that almost certainly would sharply reduce the number of people qualified for coverage, is absolutely the wrong person to lead HHS.
“I am very frightened by what you are going to do, and so are millions of Americans,” Franken said. “I see you as someone who is there for the doctor and that this is not going to create access for all Americans. This is going to unravel something that has given a lot of Americans peace of mind.”
During the hearing, Murkowski betrayed her uncertainty about the likely impact of the Obamacare repeal effort, especially the potential loss of expanded Medicaid coverage for her state’s Indian population. Even Alexander voiced qualms about the uncertainty over how Trump and the Republicans would sequence the move from Obamacare to his party’s alternative plan.
“To me . . . Obamacare should be finally repealed only when there are concrete, practical reforms in place to give Americans access to truly affordable health care,” Alexander said in his opening remarks. “The American people deserve health care reform that is done the right way, for the right reasons and the right amount of time. It’s not about developing a quick fix. It’s about working towards long-term solutions that work for everyone.”