The party lines were clear Wednesday during the confirmation hearing of Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Democratic senators took a hard line, raising ethical concerns about the orthopedic surgeon’s financial investments in healthcare stocks, with one saying he found it hard to believe that Price was unaware that he held shares in companies as he introduced legislation that would benefit them.
But Republicans took a softer stance, defending the accusations against Price’s character. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee that conducted the hearing, said at the conclusion that Price has taken a similar tone as current HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, sharing a willingness to work with people who have different points of view and try to come to a consensus.
Despite Democratic Senators’ protest that Republicans rushed through Price’s confirmation hearing and the panel was only given seven minutes in one round of questioning, Alexander noted that Price’s hearing went on far longer than any other HHS secretary confirmation in recent years.
Senators can also submit written questions, but the Senate Finance Committee is expected to vote on Price’s nomination on Jan. 24.
In his opening statement (PDF), Price said that he wants to work with Congress in pursuit of his commitment to six principles of healthcare: affordability, accessibility, quality, choices, innovation and responsiveness.
“We all want a healthcare system that’s affordable, that’s accessible to all, of the highest quality, with the greatest number of choices, driven by world-leading innovations, and responsive to the needs of the individual patient,” he said.
But the confirmation hearing became heated at times, a tone Alexander described as “testy” and likely an aftereffect from the political division over the past year during the election cycle and threats to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Alexander said he hoped Price’s “bedside manner” will help lower the temperature within Congress.
That remains to be seen based on some of the exchanges between senators and Price on Wednesday.
Part of the problem: Price didn’t provide specifics on what plan will replace the ACA, stating throughout the hearing that it would ensure that every American would have the financial feasibility to access the healthcare coverage they wanted.
Here are a few highlights from the hearing:
On Trump’s promise not to cut Medicare, Medicaid
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said throughout his campaign Trump said that he would not cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.
His question to Price: Will the president-elect keep his word to the American people?
“I have no reason to believe that position has changed,” Price replied.
On Trump’s vow to cut prescription drug prices
Sanders also noted Trump’s latest position on rising drug prices, paraphrasing a tweet he sent last week that essentially stated “Pharma is getting away with murder.”
Sanders asked Price whether he and Trump would work with lawmakers on legislation to allow Medicare to negotiate prices with drug companies. Price said he is committed to working to make drug pricing reasonable and that individuals have access to the medications they need.
“That wasn’t quite the answer to the question that I asked," Sanders replied.
See the full exchange in this video clip from C-Span below:
Murray on Price’s financial investments into healthcare companies
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., directly asked Price whether he purchased stocks in the company 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. These types of purchases, she said, were made days before Price was to vote on the 21st Century Cures Act, which has provisions that could impact drug developers like Innate Immunotherapeutics.
“Do you believe it is appropriate for a senior member of Congress actively involved in policymaking in the health sector to repeatedly, personally invest in a drug company that could benefit from those actions?” she asked. “Yes or no.
“That isn’t what happened,” Price said.
“Let me just say that I believe it’s inappropriate,” Murray replied, “and we need answers to this regarding whether you and Congressman Collins used your access to nonpublic information when you bought at prices that were unavailable to the public.”
“I had no access to nonpublic information,” Price replied.
Offbeat exchange with Tim Kaine on slavery and Office of Minority Health
During his questioning of Price, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., brought up Price’s fight to keep the Confederate flag part of the Georgia state flag, even sponsoring resolutions when he was a member of the Georgia legislature for a Confederate History and Heritage Month in Georgia.
Kaine noted that the resolution included the phrase, “commemorate the time of Southern independence,” yet never mentioned anything about slavery.
“Why did you support that resolution and do you still support it today?” Kaine asked.
Price replied: “I haven’t thought about that in a long time. I’m happy to look at it and refresh my memory."
“What is laudatory about the time of Southern independence?” Kaine pressed.
“Every heritage has things good about it. Every heritage has things that are harmful about it," Price said, adding, “Slavery was an abomination.”
Kaine later tied in his line of questioning to the Office of Minority Health, an agency created by the ACA, that he said could be eliminated under the repeal of the health reform law.
Price said that he looks forward to using all available resources within the department to ensure every American has the highest quality healthcare.
Watch the entire confirmation hearing here via C-span: