Price faces questions on rural health, ACA repeal, ethics at 2nd hearing for HHS post

Tom Price speaking
The Senate Finance Committee is expected to vote on confirmation of Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., as secretary of the Health & Human Services, later today.

During the first hour of his confirmation hearing this morning before the Senate Finance Committee, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., faced continued accusations of conflict of interest surrounding his purchase of stock in an Australian biotech company.

The committee will hold a vote on his nomination by President Donald Trump to serve as the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. If confirmed by the full Senate, Price will take a lead role in the White House administration and Republicans’ plans to overhaul the Affordable Care Act. Last week he answered questions by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

RELATED: Medicaid funding among major themes in Price hearing

Once again the tone of the hearing was divided by party lines, with Democrats asking Price tougher questions than their Republican colleagues. In fact, Price received support at the start of the hearing from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. “It is difficult to imagine anyone more capable than Congressman Tom Price,” said Hatch, who added that there have been “grossly exaggerated attacks on his views and ethics.”

Price on possible conflict of interest

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the ranking member of the Finance Committee, hammered Price on his purchase of several healthcare stocks, particularly shares in Innate Immunotherapeutics after he received a stock tip from Republican Rep. Chris Collins of New York, a member of the House who serves on Trump’s transition team. He made the purchase, Wyden said, at a private offering discount not available to the public.

“It is hard to see it as anything but a conflict of interest and abuse of position,” Wyden said.

But Price held firm that the purchase was ethical, legal and above board and he saw no conflict of interest or “bad judgment” in regards to the purchase.

Price on ACA repeal

Later, when Wyden asked him directly whether he would commit to the promise Trump made that no one will be worse off or lose health insurance coverage as the result of the repeal of the ACA, Price was evasive. He answered that he is committed to make put patients at the center of healthcare and “every single American will have access to affordable health coverage and the highest quality healthcare.”

"That’s not what I asked," Wyden said.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., followed up, arguing that even if Congress did nothing, in his view the ACA wasn’t working as one in three counties in the country has only one insurer offering coverage on exchanges and the prices for health plans are often unaffordable.

Views on rural health crisis

Roberts also asked Price what he will do to help alleviate the financial and regulatory burden facing critical care access hospitals and rural hospitals that have caused many to close. Price said in Georgia, many providers are leaving because of onerous regulations, such as Meaningful Use.

“It has turned physicians into data entry clerks,” Price said, noting that doctors are spending more time punching information into computers instead of spending time with patients. Price said lawmakers need to look the consequences of rules and regulations they pass that may actually harm individuals or providers that deliver care.

Editor’s note: The confirmation hearing was ongoing as of presstime. Look for updates on this story throughout the day at FierceHealthcare.com. The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the committee would vote on the nomination today. 

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