Health secretary pick Price pressed at hearing on stock deals as congressman

Senate Democrats focused heavily on Prices purchases of health stocks while he was a leading voice on healthcare policy in the House

Senate Democrats focused on Tom Prices stock trades in health companies and his support for eliminating key provisions of Obamacare at the first hearing for Donald Trumps nominee for health secretary.

Doubts among Democrats about Price, a deeply conservative and controversial physician who has sought to radically change American healthcare, were clear at the hearing, although Republicans attempted to diffuse skepticism with softball lobs which emphasized his experience as a physician.

Price, who was an orthopedic surgeon in suburban Atlanta, Georgia, before entering politics and becoming a member of the House of Representatives, is known to be an advocate for the patient-doctor relationship, a Tea Party Republican, and a fervent opponent to the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

If confirmed, Price would lead an expansive health administration that doles out more than $1.1tn for federal health programs, many of which Price has repeatedly attacked while in office.

Accessibility is absolutely imperative, said Price, in his opening remarks. The closer you can have those decisions to the patient, keeping focus on the patient the better.

Access to health insurance coverage was a recurring theme in the hearing, and one that underscored the philosophical schism between Democrats and Republicans in fights to reform the Affordable Care Act: whether Americans have a right to health insurance, or only a right to access the purchase of insurance.

I have access to buying a $10m home, I dont have the money to do that, Democratic senator Bernie Sanders said during his zealous questioning of Price.

Two days before the hearing, Trump promised insurance for everyone. However, Price repeatedly focused on access to coverage over guarantees of coverage.

The hearing also gave a window into how Republicans foresee health reform legislation moving forward, despite the partys lack of specifics. Republican chairman of the Senate committee Lamar Alexander said reform should happen, step by step, large piece by piece, with which Price generally agreed.

We dont believe in replacing a failed Washington DC health care plan with our own healthcare plan, said Alexander, saying he wanted more state control and to reduce harmful taxes.

Tom Price repeatedly focused on access to coverage over guarantees of coverage during his confirmation hearing. Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images

A Republican repeal without a replacement could rip health insurance away from 18 million people, a Congressional Budget Office analysis found this week. Prices hearing did little to clear up uncertainty about Republican proposals, but did highlight how Price could be on the opposite side of issues from his new boss.

Trump repeatedly promised on the campaign trail that he would not cut Medicare or Medicaid, programs that Price has proposed turning into block grants as a way to reign in spending. Price would not swear off cutting Medicare and Medicaid, despite being asked repeatedly.

Trump has proposed controlling prescription drug costs by allowing foreign imports of drugs, and allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices. Price has voted against both of those proposals in the past.

Democrats focused heavily on Prices purchases of health stocks while he was a leading voice on health policy in the House.

Price purchased between $50,000 and $100,000 of stock in a small Australian company, at a discount with another Trump transition team member and fellow House Republican Chris Collins. Price received a discount for the stocks in a private deal, while negotiations on the 21st Century Cures Act were ongoing, a bill that could boost the fortunes of companies developing new drug treatments, like Innate Immunotherapeutics.

[Collins] talked about the company, and the work they were doing in trying to solve the challenge of secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, I studied the company for a period of time, and felt it had some significant merit and promise, said Price, in response to questions from Democratic Senator Patty Murray.

Your purchase occurred while 21st Century Cures Act was being negotiated, said Murray.

Thats not what happened, said Price, adding later that I had no access to nonpublic information. Price sat on the ways and means committee, which helped write the bill.

Price bought and sold almost $300,000 worth of stock in health-related companies in the last two years, all of which, he said, was done through a broker without his knowledge. Another subject of Democratic needling was Prices votes against regulating tobacco like a drug, considered a landmark law in curbing smoking, and past holdings in tobacco companies.

Between 1993 and 2003 you were a shareholder of tobacco big tobacco meaning you personally benefitted from tobacco sales, said Democrat Al Franken. Meanwhile, you voted against landmark legislation in 2009 that gave the FDA authority to regulate tobacco.

How do you square reaping personal financial gain from a product that kills millions of American every decade? Franken asked.

Price said, he had no idea what stocks I held in the 90s, or the 2000s, or even now.

Wednesdays hearing will not ultimately decide whether Price is approved for the job of leading Health and Human Services. That will be done by the Senate finance committee on 24 January.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/18/tom-price-stock-purchase-confirmation-hearing