WASHINGTON — It’s called a “courtesy hearing,” but Representative Tom Price, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of health and human services, can expect some of his Senate interrogators to get a little rough.
Price, an orthopedic surgeon and six-term GOP congressman from Georgia, will appear before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions to answer questions on Wednesday. It’s a courtesy hearing because a separate panel, the Senate Finance Committee, will actually vote on his nomination.
Still, there will be a lot to discuss.
Price is widely known for his crusade to repeal the Affordable Care Act — an issue he took on well before Trump made it a cornerstone of his campaign. But even as Congress moves to abolish the law, some GOP lawmakers remain worried about the prospect of leaving consumers without a viable replacement. And Democrats continue to fight against repeal.
As HHS secretary, Price would not have the power to enact a new health law. But he will set the pace for how the agency implements the current one, and, while Congress debates its replacement, he can change the rules to discourage insurers from participating.
Price is also appearing before lawmakers at a time of growing scrutiny over his investments in health care and tobacco companies. Last week, he pledged to divest his financial interests from 43 companies. But questions remain about whether Price, whose shares in Innate Immunotherapeutics boomed shortly after his purchase last fall, secured a deal that was not available to the general public.
Here are some questions we would like to see answered.
You have proposed major changes to Medicare. How can you do so without leaving Americans vulnerable?
Trump has promised not to gut Medicare, the federal health insurance program for people age 65 and older, some younger people with disabilities, and those with permanent kidney failure.
But Price, and much of the Republican leadership, believes changes are necessary to avoid bankruptcy. There is likely to be strong opposition, even among those who support repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
The National Physicians Alliance, one of the doctors groups that opposes Price’s nomination, has said his interest in moving to “privatize Medicare would end the healthcare guarantee for our nation’s 57 million seniors and drastically hurt our most elderly and vulnerable patients.”
We’d like to know how Price plans to alter the Medicare Advantage and Part D programs, which can be changed without ACA repeal. And how will he protect the low-income elderly, if his plan to provide them with vouchers is adopted? Lastly, will Price continue to oppose allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies — a bid to lower drug prices —even though Trump has said he would support the idea?
How will your anti-abortion views impact your work with the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health?
The FDA is an independent agency, but falls under the umbrella of HHS, which would put Price at the center of debates involving reproductive health, as well as fetal tissue and embryonic stem cell research.
He is strongly opposed to abortion. As a congressman, he had a 0 percent rating from Planned Parenthood and a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life. He has also supported defining personhood as beginning from the moment of conception and therefore providing constitutional protections to unborn persons.
How will these views affect his decisions at HHS and the work conducted at the FDA and NIH?
A recent report suggested you got a ‘sweetheart deal’ on shares in a foreign biotech, even though it wasn’t issuing stock on the open market. How did you come to buy the shares in Innate Immunotherapeutics? And how did you handle your other trades?
Members of Congress are permitted to buy and sell stock, and biomedical and health care stocks remain popular.
It’s all perfectly legal. There’s one exception: Lawmakers are not permitted to use their positions to gain special access to investments. In this case, Price must explain how he got in.
As Kaiser Health News reported last week, Innate Immuno has hinged its business strategy on winning approval for its new multiple sclerosis drug from the FDA. Price’s profiting off of that stock could present a conflict of interest.
We’re also curious to learn why Price, a physician, invested in tobacco company Altria.
How do you propose doctors be protected from malpractice claims while also ensuring patients can seek redress?
One of Price’s main interests since being elected to public office has been trying to limit doctors’ vulnerability to patients who sue them for malpractice.
He has said that “there is too much money on the table” in medical malpractice cases, which, he contends, drives up the cost of malpractice insurance premiums and health care overall.
But how does Price square his interest in tort reform with an interest in protecting patients?
Do you share the president-elect’s concerns about the safety of US vaccines?
Trump has made a number of remarks indicating that he is concerned about vaccine safety, seemingly lending credence to debunked theories suggesting vaccines can cause autism. He also met recently with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an outspoken anti-vaccine figure, who later said he had been asked to lead a committee on vaccine safety. (Trump’s transition team did not confirm he had been asked to do so.)
As the head of the nation’s top health agency, Price would be in a position to, at the very least, set the administration’s tone on vaccines.
How will you regulate the cigar industry?
As a congressman, Price tried to exempt the cigar industry from the new FDA rules that require premium, hand-rolled cigars to comply with the same testing and labeling requirements that smokeless tobacco and flavored must follow.
The industry opposes these rules for several reasons. It is also opposed to a provision that requires manufacturers to put health warning labels on the boxes, which are now often covered with intricate artwork.
As HHS secretary, and a cigar smoker, Price could block implementation of that rule. But would he?