HHS chief refuses to testify on child separation policy

HHS chief refuses to testify on child separation policy
© Getty Images

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is refusing to have secretary Alex Azar testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the administration’s child separation policy, according to the panel’s chairman.

“[Azar’s] denial to appear before the Committee in the coming weeks on the family separation policy is unacceptable, and we are going to get him here at some point one way or another,” Rep. Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneOvernight Health Care: Insurance lobby chief calls Biden, Sanders health plans 'similarly bad' | Trump officials appeal drug price disclosure ruling | Study finds 1 in 7 people ration diabetes medicine due to cost House Democratic chairman launches probe of e-cigarette makers Lawmakers criticize EPA draft rule for curbing rights to challenge pollution permits MORE (D-N.J.) said in a statement.

A committee spokesman said Pallone “personally requested Secretary Azar testify before the Committee, but the Secretary’s office declined.”

ADVERTISEMENT

An HHS spokeswoman said Azar has spoken directly with Pallone "and is committed to the welfare of the children in HHS care."

She said Azar is in regular contact with members of Congress to provide updates and hosts a weekly call with lawmakers.

"The Secretary is fully committed to providing committees with the best subject matter experts available at the Department to answer any questions about our programs," the spokeswoman said.

HHS offered to have other officials testify, including Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary at the agency's Administration for Children and Families (ACF), Commander Jonathan White, the deputy director for children's services at ACF, and Jonathan Hayes, the acting director of HHS's refugee office.

The Energy and Commerce spokesman said Pallone "believes that Secretary Azar is the right person to testify on this issue."

Azar’s refusal comes on the heels of a report from the HHS inspector general that found the Trump administration separated thousands more migrant children from their parents than was previously known.

Democrats have seized on that report to put pressure on the administration to answer for the controversial policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the southern border.

Earlier this month, Pallone announced one of the committee’s first hearings would examine the separation policy.

Azar is the latest administration official to refuse a Democratic request to testify; Treasury Department Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinMnuchin: Trump's 'as determined as ever' on China trade fight Sunday shows preview: Trump ratchets up trade war with China The Hill's Morning Report: How will Trump be received at G-7? MORE last week decline to testify at a hearing about the government shutdown's impact on his department.

Updated at 3:06 p.m.