Tom Price stresses patient choice, state innovation

Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., speaks at Wednesday's Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing.

As senators continued to question Rep. Tom Price on Wednesday, the nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services stayed firm in his defense against insider-trading allegations and his support of a healthcare system that emphasizes patient choice over government regulation.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which conducted the hearing, will not vote to confirm Price’s nomination. That decision is up to the Senate Finance Committee, which will hold a hearing to question Price next Tuesday.

RELATED: Tom Price grilled on ACA, stock trades during confirmation hearing for HHS post

Perhaps some of most combative questioning Wednesday came from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. She challenged Price on his previous proposals that would have cut funds for Medicare and Medicaid, suggesting that Price print out President-elect Donald Trump’s statements on not cutting the programs and paste it above his new desk, “because Americans will be watching to see if you follow through on that promise.”

But Price contended that “the metrics we use for the success of these programs is not necessarily the amount of money into it,” adding it is more important to ensure individuals "are actually receiving the care" that they need.

Like Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., did earlier in the hearing, Warren also questioned Price on his purchase of stock in the medical device company Zimmer Biomet, saying the broker who bought the stock did so at Price’s direction. Price denied that allegation, but Warren shot back: “because you decide not to tell them—wink, wink, nod, nod—we’re just supposed to believe that?”

Yet Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., defended his fellow Georgian, arguing that “it’s entirely possible for any of us to have money invested on our behalf without us having any knowledge of it.”

Price fields questions on Medicaid, ACA and CMMI

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and later, Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., also asked Price about his position on the federal government’s Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI), which has faced criticism for some of its mandatory demonstration projects.

While noting he supports innovation, Price said that he’s “adamantly opposed” to the mandatory way the CMMI has approached some demonstrations. He specifically cited the controversial Medicare Part B payment demonstration, which the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services nixed following outcry from drug manufacturers and oncologists.

“It’s imperative as we move forward, that anything that gets in the way of patients, families and physicians, we ought not to go down that road,” Price said.

In response to another question from Young, Price signaled strong support for a signature policy achievement of Seema Verma—Trump’s pick to lead CMS—and Vice President-elect Mike Pence. The Healthy Indiana Plan 2.0, the state’s conservative take on Medicaid expansion, is a “best practice for other states to follow,” Price said.

Addressing concerns from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Ala., about the repercussions of rolling back Medicaid expansion, Price added that he is committed to ensuring that “individuals don’t fall through the cracks” regardless of how the program is structured in the future.

Under questioning from Rand Paul, R-Ky., Price also indicated support for allowing consumers to have a greater degree of choice in terms of the type of insurance coverage they can buy. Plans that feature health savings accounts and high-deductible health plans, he said, “make a whole lot of sense for many individuals,” and they should be able to make those selections.

But Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., was critical of that approach. If the law no longer requires health insurers to cover certain benefits—such as addiction treatment—insurers could very well drop those benefits, robbing consumers of the choice to access them, she said.

While Price indicated he was willing to work with Congress on the goal of protecting consumers, Hassan was not convinced. “I’m concerned about your unwillingness to commit to making sure insurance companies cover these essential benefits,” she said.

Yet under questioning from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Price said the ACA’s most visible component—the public marketplaces—are clearly “breaking in many, many ways.” Many counties now have just one insurer offering plans, and rising premiums and deductibles threaten affordability, he noted.

“I get calls almost weekly from my former fellow physicians who tell me that their patients are making decisions about not getting the kind of care that they need because they can’t afford the deductible," Price said.