WASHINGTON (CN) – Rep. Tom Price sparred with Senate Democrats on Tuesday at a contentious hearing to confirm his appointment as head of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Querulous and seemingly exasperated with senators from across the aisle, the six-term Republican staunchly defended his and the GOP’s position on repealing the federal health care law.
Price, who also served four years in the Georgia Senate, appeared confident this afternoon that it is in America’s best interest to overhaul the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare.
Long before his four-hour testimony before the Senate Finance Committee, Price earned a reputation for submitting bills to repeal ACA and replace the program with health-savings accounts and tax credits.
None of Price’s bills succeeded, but his losing streak may soon come to an end. Committee Republicans were very protective Tuesday of Price, whose nomination by President Donald Trump is expected to pass.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, also of Georgia, was no nonsense in testifying on Price’s behalf.
After describing Price as “honorable,” Isakson said he felt like he had “been asked to be a character witness in a felony trial in the sentencing phase of a conviction.”
Those feelings might have begun a week ago, during the first round of Price’s confirmation hearing, when the nominee faced scrutiny for understating the value of his investments in a pharmaceutical company.
Price, a onetime orthopedic surgeon, said Tuesday that the understated value was likely a typo. Price also faced pressure over a series of unclaimed income tax deductions totaling nearly $20,000.
Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, went toe-to-toe with Price over personal details Price supplied on his nomination application.
Sen. Wyden reminded the committee that Price had actively traded the health care stocks in question while promoting legislation that could benefit the companies in which he had invested.
“It’s hard to see how this can be anything but a conflict of interest and an abuse of his position,” Wyden said.
Price didn’t back down, telling the senator that, if he “had listened to what was said during the last hearing,” then Wyden would know that “the reality is, everything [he] did was ethical, above board, legal and transparent.”
This sort of snappy exchange between Price and the committee continued when Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat of Missouri, took Price to task for obfuscating his position on Medicaid budget cuts.
Throughout the hearing Price reiterated promises to work with “every single member of the Congress to make certain that we have the highest quality of care.”
Good intentions were not enough, however, to convince Sen. McCaskill. She reminded the nominee that, as chair of the House Budget Committee last year, Price had supported a $1 trillion cut to Medicaid for the 2017 budget.
“And yet today, you want to stand on the notion that whatever [Congress] does is fine,” McCaskill said. “But that’s just not reality, Congressmen. What is reality is that you have been chosen [as secretary] because of your beliefs. And your beliefs are reflected in the budget that you wrote as chairman of your committee.”
Price evaded the query deftly without specifically addressing how he saw such drastic cuts as a boon to low-income workers, the elderly, the disabled, or women who rely on Medicaid or its offshoots like the Children’s Healthcare Insurance Program.
“What I believe in is a Medicaid system responsive to patients and one that provides the highest quality care possible,” Price said. “I would respectfully suggest to you that that is not the Medicaid of today.”
Price also piqued curiosity over what exactly is in store for Americans after the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Asking point blank for an answer, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio looked down the dais at Price.
“President Trump said he’s working with you on a replacement plan [for ACA] which is almost finished and will be revealed after your confirmation,” Brown said. “Is that true?”
Pausing for a moment, Price responded: “It is true that he said that, yes.”
A peal of laughter erupted through the room.
“Not that he’s ever done this before, but did the president lie,” Brown asked. “I know we don’t use the word lie here, because we’re polite when presidents make statements that aren’t true. But did he lie to the public about working with you?”
Price said that he “had conversations with the president about health care.” Brown responded that the answer was inadequate.
Calling him the “architect of repeal and run,” Sen. Wyden offered a dire summation of what will lie in store if Price, under direction from the Trump administration, repeals the health care program without a viable solution in sight.
“Eighteen million Americans will lose health care in less than two years. You would go from 26 million uninsured to 59 million. Repeal and replace raises prices by more than half, and low- or no-cost contraceptive coverage for millions of women is gone.”
“This will take us back to the dark days when health care was only for the healthy and wealthy,” he added.