Five takeaways from Price's confirmation hearing

Five takeaways from Price's confirmation hearing
© Greg Nash

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), the nominee to be secretary of Health and Human Services, on Wednesday fielded a barrage of questions about his ethics, the plan to replace ObamaCare and President-elect Trump’s vow not to cut Medicare. 

Price kept his cards close to his chest, parrying questions from Democrats by speaking in broad terms about wanting to provide access to healthcare coverage while providing few details. 

Here are five takeaways from the hearing.

Stock trading questions aren’t going away 

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Democrats grilled Price on his trades of healthcare stocks while a member of Congress, raising questions about conflicts of interest. 

Under questioning from Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayVA senior adviser forced out amid concerns that he was 'getting paid to sit on his couch': report The Year Ahead: Drug pricing efforts to test bipartisanship Overnight Health Care: Manchin pitched Trump on reviving bipartisan ObamaCare fix | 4 in 10 don’t plan to get flu shots | Survey finds more than a quarter have pre-existing conditions MORE (D-Wash.), Price acknowledged that he had bought stock in a biotech company called Innate Immunotherapeutics after discussing the company with Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.).

Democrats have warned that Price could have violated the STOCK Act, which bans stock trading by lawmakers based on their inside congressional information. 

Price argued that while Collins told him about the company, there was no inside information shared. 

"I had no access to nonpublic information," Price said. 

“I studied the company for a period of time and felt that it had some significant merit and promise,” he added.  

Democrats noted that Price bought the stock as part of a private offering to a small group of people. 

“These sound like sweetheart deals,” said Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenKamala Harris to keep seat on Judiciary Committee Report says ex-CBS executive Les Moonves 'deliberately lied' to investigators about allegations Norm Coleman: ‘I do believe’ I beat Al Franken in 2008 MORE (D-Minn.). 

Collins, for his part, has faced questions after Politico reported that he was overheard talking on his cell phone in the Capitol about giving stock tips to people and how many "millionaires I've made in Buffalo."

Collins also sits on Innate Immunotherapeutics's board.   

Murray called for a “full, independent investigation.”

Republican senators defended Price on the stock questions and did not press him on the issue.  

No details on the ObamaCare replacement

Price spoke in broad terms about wanting to provide “access” to coverage for everyone, but gave no details about how to do that. 

That isn’t a surprise, as Republicans have not yet put forward a consensus replacement plan. 

But Democrats expressed some frustration that there was nothing concrete to study when Price talked about maintaining access to coverage.  

“I think there’s been a lot of talk about individuals losing health coverage,” Price said. “That is not our goal, nor is it our desire, nor is it our plan.” 

Republican healthcare plans that have been put forward in the past tend to provide less financial assistance for buying coverage than ObamaCare, with the idea people can buy cheaper plans that cover fewer healthcare services. 

Those plans also tend to protect people with pre-existing conditions only when they are changing plans, in contrast to ObamaCare, which also protects people with pre-existing conditions who are uninsured and signing up for the first time. The Republican system is designed to avoid a mandate that forces people to buy coverage.    

Price won’t commit to Trump’s Medicare promises

Price wouldn’t be pinned down on President-elect Trump’s vows on Medicare. 

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenGillum to speak at gathering of top Dem donors: report O'Rourke edges out Biden in MoveOn straw poll Dems ask if Trump aide Bill Shine is breaking ethics laws MORE (D-Mass.) tried to get Price to “safeguard President-elect Trump’s promise” during the campaign to oppose cutting Medicare or Medicaid. 

Price would not commit, instead disputing the basis of Warren’s question. “What the question presumes is that money is the metric,” Price replied. “If patients aren’t receiving care even though we’re providing the resources, then it doesn’t work for patients.”

Price did tell Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersCoal supporter Manchin named top Dem on Senate Energy Committee Gillum to speak at gathering of top Dem donors: report O'Rourke edges out Biden in MoveOn straw poll MORE (I-Vt.), under similar questioning, that he thinks Trump stands by his promise to not cut Medicare or Medicaid.  

"I haven't had extensive discussions with him about the comments he's made, but I have no reason to believe that he's changed his position," Price said. 

Price was slightly more open on Trump’s call for Medicare to negotiate drug prices, an idea that has traditionally been supported by Democrats.

He noted that "the boss that I have will be the president of the United States," but did not say "yes" when Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinDem senator accuses Wisconsin Republicans of 'power grab' Schumer reelected as Senate Democratic Leader Number of LGBT lawmakers in Congress hits double digits MORE (D-Wis.) asked if Price would work to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices.  

Insists GOP won’t pull the rug out in replacement plan 

Price tried to soothe anxieties about the GOP's ObamaCare repeal effort, vowing that millions of people would not suddenly lose health insurance.   

“One of the important things that we need to convey to the American people is that nobody’s interested in pulling the rug out from under anybody,” Price told senators. 

If confirmed to lead HHS, Price will have a substantial influence over ObamaCare’s replacement plan. 

“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 that they want for themselves and for their families.”

Trump said in an interview this weekend that his ObamaCare replacement would provide "insurance for everybody." But Price stopped short of that pledge, saying instead everyone should have the "opportunity to gain access." 

Price also dodged questions about whether a replacement would keep popular ObamaCare provisions that allow kids to stay on their parents' insurance until 26 and guarantee coverage for people with preexisting conditions. 

"I think it’s absolutely imperative that we have a system in place that works for patients," Price said in response to a question about those provisions.  

"Anybody not able to get access to the coverage that they want or need is not a system that works for patients." 

Promises 'access' to health insurance, not guarantee  

Price aligned himself with GOP leaders who say an ObamaCare replacement will provide "access" to affordable health insurance instead of universal coverage. 

“We all want a healthcare system that’s affordable, that’s accessible to all, of the highest quality, with the greatest number of choices, driven by world-leading innovations, and responsive to the needs of the individual patient,” Price said.  

“We all share concerns for the American people and how we best make certain that they have access to the highest quality care that the world knows,” he said.

His promise of "access" drew a jab from Sanders, a vocal advocate for universal healthcare. 

"I have access to buying a $10 million home," Sanders said. "I don’t have the money to do that."