New Health and Human Services Secretary Evasive at House Questioning

WASHINGTON (CN) – Facing tense questioning by lawmakers Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar declined to elaborate on issues involving the Trump administration’s cuts to Medicare and Medicaid or how the department will address correlations between gun violence and mental health care.

Secretary Azar has officially headed the department for just 14 days, which he repeatedly mentioned to members of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.

Despite his short tenure at the department, in light of Wednesday’s school shooting in Florida, Representative Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., asked Azar if he would address “the ongoing mental health crisis” he believes underscores the frequency of shootings in the U.S.

“I’ll look at what we have invested and if we have the right programs and research in this field,” Azar said.

Azar replaced former Secretary Tom Price in January. Price resigned amid revelations he spent taxpayer dollars on personal travel.

Squandering taxpayer dollars was also top of mind for Representative Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., who entered a tense exchange with Azar over the Trump administration’s $1.4 trillion Medicaid budget cuts.

“Well, there’s a $1.2 trillion new fund that would replace Medicaid expansion and the individual subsidy program under the Affordable Care Act,” Azar said.

“You’re talking about Graham-Cassidy,” Lujan said. “Would you agree that the Congressional Budget Office said, at the very least, Graham-Cassidy reduces Medicaid by $1 trillion?”

The Graham-Cassidy bill turns control of the health care market over to the states.

Azar said he did not know the “net-net score” once old programs were removed and new programs were implemented.

“I don’t know the ups and downs on complete CBO scoring or which part is expansion and where the advanceable [sic] refundable tax credit fits in,” Azar said.

Representative Lujan then read from a series of tweets by Trump promising his administration would not make any cuts to Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security.

“The president and my Republican colleagues said they weren’t cutting Medicaid but giving more flexibility to states,” Lujan pressed. “Is that how you would describe the $1.2 trillion you’re talking about?”

Traditional Medicaid will grow from $400 billion over 10 years to $453 billion, Azar said, repeating that Medicaid expansion would be rescinded as a part of Graham-Cassidy but replaced with an individual subsidy program and the $1.2 trillion grant program.

Reading from a series of Trump’s own statements promising to be unlike “every other Republican” and “not cut Medicare or Medicaid,” Lujan asked if Azar believed Trump kept his word.

Azar would not answer yes or no, prompting the senator to speak over the secretary while Azar said the administration would make the programs “sustainable for long-term beneficiaries.”

He added that he fully supported the president’s budget.

Representative Lujan then pressed further, asking Azar if he would uphold his own promise from his January confirmation hearing when he told Senator Bill Nelson, D-Fla., that cutting Medicaid and Medicare would not be the best method to fill a “huge budget deficit hole.”

“I never said I would enforce not cutting [sic]… I’ll go along with wherever the president is on this program,” Azar said.

Lujan responded, “Your job is to enforce those programs, not [support] cutting those programs.”

Azar’s exchange with Representative Diana DeGette, D-Colo., went no smoother.

DeGette raised concerns over a report Thursday in the Washington Post that said the Health and Human Services Department threatened to cut federal funding from the Vera Institute of Justice if the organization’s lawyers communicated with clients about abortion rights.

Azar said he had no knowledge of the allegations in the report and refused to comment on a series of hypothetical questions posed by DeGette.

“As a lawyer myself, this seems an intrusion of the attorney-client relationship,” DeGette said. “If the allegations are true, is this appropriate?”

Noting the seriousness of the claim, Azar refused to comment.

DeGette then asked if the secretary would consider implementing any department policy that legally bars employees from interfering with someone’s access to health care.

DeGette was referring to E. Scott Lloyd, the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, who attempted to bar access to abortions to at least four immigrant women held in detention centers, including a victim of rape.

Azar said he was not aware of the details involving Lloyd but had heard of the report.

“As secretary, you have authority to stop Lloyd and his staff from interfering with people’s constitutional rights. Will you commit today to ask him to stop doing that?” DeGette said, noting she had sent a letter to the department in December making similar requests when Lloyd’s activities first surfaced.

“We have a statutory obligation to look at health and welfare of [those women] and unborn children,” Azar said. “I don’t know the facts of the situation and cannot comment on pending litigation.”

“Good news, four courts have already said [the office] can’t stop them from getting abortions,” DeGette informed him. “Are you contesting those court decisions?”

Azar refused to comment, forcing DeGette to ask if he was aware his department already has a policy that bars contractors like Lloyd from discussing abortion rights with their clients.

“I’m not aware of the policy, I’m not aware, and I cannot sit here and off the cuff state a policy like that for the department,” Azar retorted.

When the lawmaker asked for a full report on allegations involving Vera’s attorneys to be produced in 30 days, the secretary refused.

“I will not be able to commit to a 30-day timeline because I don’t know what I know until I know the circumstances [are revealed] and whether it connects to a matter in litigation,” he said. “I don’t want to make a false commitment.”

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