WASHINGTON ― “I’ve had conversations with the president about health care, yes.”
That line ― delivered by Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), President Donald Trump’s nominee to be secretary of Health and Human Services ― was about as close to a revelation as anything that transpired during a Senate Finance Committee hearing Tuesday considering his nomination.
After six terms in the House where he specialized in health policy, years in the Georgia state legislature and a long career as a physician, one of Price’s chief qualifications for the top health care position in the federal government is his knowledge and experience.
Price opted to keep most of that knowledge and experience to himself at his confirmation hearing, just like he did during an appearance before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee a week ago.
There are a lot of questions swirling around the future of the health care system, assuming Trump and congressional Republicans follow through on their plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act and “replace” it with some other plan. When will they act? How many people will lose coverage? Will the Trump administration upend the health insurance market before Congress even acts?
Price repeatedly declined to provide even the slightest hint about what Trump wants to do, whether Price’s own health care reform legislation might be part of that, or when Americans can expect to find out what the health care system of Trump’s dreams looks like.
During the presidential transition, Trump said he intended to submit a comprehensive proposal for “replacing” Obamacare shortly after Price’s confirmation.
As with most of Trump’s promises, there was reason to doubt at the time that he was as close as he claimed to having a plan. This claim was especially dubious because Trump’s statements on health care have ranged from promoting universal coverage to embracing standard GOP proposals that don’t even attempt to achieve that goal.
Price didn’t offer any clarity about this on Tuesday. Arguably, he just raised more questions.
“President Trump said he’s working with you on a replacement plan for the ACA, which is nearly finished and will be revealed after your confirmation. Is that true?” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) asked.
Price’s immediate response: “It’s true that he said that, yes.” This prompted laughter that filled the hearing room.
Brown pressed Price about whether Trump told the truth about his impending health care plan, and whether Price was helping him develop it.
“I’ve had conversations with the president about health care, yes,” Price said.
The work that I did as a legislator is not necessarily the work that I would promote as secretary of Health and Human Services. Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.)
CNN reported this month that Trump’s team has deliberately excluded Price from the deliberations on health care, expressly so that he wouldn’t be able to answer questions about the president’s ideas during the confirmation process.
Democrats also failed to nail down Price about health care legislation he authored as a member of Congress. Price has introduced a bill to “replace” Obamacare with a smaller benefit that would cover fewer people and offer less help buying health insurance. As House Budget Committee chairman, Price also shepherded a budget that would be dramatically cut Medicare and Medicaid funding.
“There’s big gap between the Trump pledge of insurance for everybody and great health care, and the congressman’s proposal,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the senior Democrat on the Finance Committee.
But Price argued that senators shouldn’t read too much into his lengthy history as a lawmaker and a prominent spokesman for conservative health care ideas.
“The work that I did as a legislator is not necessarily the work that I would promote as secretary of Health and Human Services,” he said.
This exchange between Wyden and Price pretty well summed up Tuesday’s hearing. Wyden asked Price questions about Trump’s executive order instructing federal agencies to scale back the Affordable Care Act ― including potentially ending enforcement of the law’s individual mandate to obtain health care, which could destabilize the entire insurance market. The Georgia Republican didn’t have much to say.
Wyden: Under the executive order, will you commit that no one will be worse off?
Price: What I commit to, senator, is working with you and every single member of Congress to make certain that we have the highest quality health care and that every single American has access to affordable health care.
Wyden: That is not what I asked. I asked will you commit no one will be worse off under the executive order. You ducked the question. Do you guarantee that no one will lose coverage under the executive order?
Price: I guarantee you that the individuals that lost coverage under the Affordable Care Act, we will commit to making certain that they don’t lose coverage under whatever replacement plan comes forward. That’s the commitment that I’d make.
Wyden: The question, again, is will anyone lose coverage, and the answer is something I didn’t ask. I’ll wrap up this round by saying: Will you commit to not implementing the order until the replacement plan is in place?
Price: As I mentioned, senator, what I commit to the American people is to keep patients at the center of health care. What that means to mean is making certain every single American has access to affordable health coverage that will provide the highest quality health care that the world can provide.
Wyden: I’m going to close by way of saying that what the congressman is saying is that the order could go into effect before there’s a replacement plan. And independent experts say that this is going to destroy the market [where] millions of working families buy health coverage. And the question that I asked ― will the congressman commit that nobody will be worse off, nobody will lose coverage ― we didn’t get an answer.