Georgia Rep. Tom Price emphasized his medical career and bipartisan chops in opening what's certain to be a contentious hearing on his nomination as Health and Human Services Secretary, with Democrats eyeing the hearing as another salvo in their fight to defend Obamacare.
"My first professional calling was to care for patients. That experience as a physician and later as a legislator has provided a holistic view of the complex interactions that take place every day across our communities and across this country that, when done correctly, are in service to the greater good we seek to achieve," Price said at the hearing of the Senate Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Wednesday.
During his opening statement, he shared lessons he learned in his two decades as a practicing physician and touted his work with Democrats in Congress, telling the panel he had been "fortunate to have been a part of collaborations that broke through party lines to solve problems including those pertaining to health care."
But it's just that legislative work that could pose him the greatest challenge as Democrats attempt to damage the nominee.
Price, an orthopedic surgeon by trade, has been dogged for weeks over negative news reports revealing he invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in health care companies that stood to benefit from the laws he's worked on in Congress. On Tuesday, a group of Democratic senators called on Price's hearing to be postponed until his potential ethics issues are fully investigated.
But in addition to the grilling on his finances and legislative work, Democrats see the hearing as an opportunity to press their case on the Affordable Care Act, as Price is a fierce opponent of the law who would implement any GOP alternative. President-elect Donald Trump has said he'll unveil his alternative to the law after Price is confirmed, so any delay to his confirmation could further delay the Obamacare repeal and replacement process.
The HELP hearing is just the first step towards confirmation for Price — he'll also have to sit before the Senate Finance Committee, which ultimately will vote him out of committee for a full Senate vote.
Obamacare Replacement Plan Details Emerge
Under questioning from committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, Price offered some details on what the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare might look like.
Asked if the plan was to work "step by step, large piece-by-piece" on reform, Price said "I think that's fair."
"The American people need to appreciate that the last thing we want to do is go from a Democrat healthcare system to a Republican health care system - our goal would be to go from what we see as a Democrat health care system to an American health care system that recognizes the needs of all," he said.
Price also offered some clarity on a key point of contention among Republicans: Timing.
In response to a question from Alexander, Price confirmed that Republicans hope to have an alternative plan in place before the ACA repeal takes effect.
"I think one of the important things we need to convey to the American people is that nobody's interested in pulling the rug out from under anybody," he said."We believe that its absolutely imperative that individuals that have health coverage be able to keep health coverage and move hopefully to greater choices and opportunities for them to gain the kind of coverage that they want for their families."
Price Gets Grilling on Stock Purchases
Democrats' ethics questions started from the outset of the hearing, with Ranking Member Patty Murray asking Price directly about his purchase of stock in Innate Immunotherapeutics, shortly before voting on legislation that would've affected the company's bottom line.
While Price denied that New York GOP Rep. Chris Collins, a founder of the company, gave him a "stock tip" on the company, he did acknowledge he spoke to Collins "about the company and the work they were doing and tried to solve the problem of secondary scoliosis." Price said he "studied the company…and felt it had significant merit and promise and purchased the initial shares on the stock exchange."
Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken largely used his period of questioning to tear into Price on his stock purchases and views on health care, noting his purchase of Innate Immunotherapeutics stock was the single largest he made in the last three years, and part of a cheaper early offering only made to 20 people, including Collins and his chief of staff.
"I find it absolutely amazing that you responded that you did not know you got a discounted price," Franken said.
Franken also told Price that his stock purchases "sound like sweetheart deals," admonishing him that Members of Congress should try to "avoid the appearance of conflict."
But Price received lots of backup from Republicans on the committee, who asked him largely softball questions on policy and defended him in their opening statements.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, Republican from Utah, decried the focus on Price's stock holdings as "nothing more than a hypocritical attack on your good character," and asked the congressman to confirm he had always followed the law.
"Everything we have done has been above board, transparent, ethical and legal," he said.
Warren Challenges Price on Stock Purchases; Isakson Warns Turnabout is Fair Play
Price faced another aggressive line of questioning from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who drilled into the congressman for his investment in a company called Zimmer Biomets just a few days before introducing legislation that would've affected its profits.
"I wasn't making those decisions," Price insisted, adding they were made "on my behalf" by his broker.
Warren noted that Price didn't use a blind trust or other money management product that would wall him off from the trading decisions.
"This is not just a stockbroker…this is someone who buys stock at your direction," she said, prompting Price to reply: "Not true."
"Well, because you decide not to tell them, wink, wink, nod, nod, and we're all just supposed to believe that?" Warren replied incredulously.
Price protested her assertion, but Warren went on to list the actions he took on the legislation, demanding: "Did you take additional actions after [you were notified of the stock purchase] to advance your plan to help the company that you now own stock in?"
"I'm offended by the insinuation, Senator," Price replied.
But Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson jumped in after Warren to warn that any member of the panel could face similar questions about their investments.
"It's entirely possible for any of us to have somebody make an investment on our behalf and us not know where that money is invested because of the very way it works," he said. "And to try and imply that somebody is obfuscating something or otherwise denying something that's a fact, it's just not the fair thing to do."
Price Dodges — and Ducks Trump — on Policy Specifics
Price broke with Trump — or refused to offer specifics — on a number of key policy questions.
Pressed by both Sanders and Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin on whether he'd work to allow Medicare to directly negotiate with drug companies for better prices, Price repeatedly refused to give a direct answer.
Trump has said he supports that reform, Price acknowledged as HHS Secretary his job will be "working with the president and carrying out his wishes" — but when Baldwin asked directly, "is that a yes?" he replied only: "It depends on that activity."
Under questioning from Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, Price refused to commit that any GOP replacement for the Affordable Care Act wouldn't contribute to the deficit or the debt.
"I commit to working with you to make certain that happens," he said when Bennet asked if he would commit to developing a debt and deficit neutral replacement.
Asked repeatedly about the issue, Price would only say he was "committing to work with you on being as fiscally responsible as we can possibly be."
And Warren tried to pin Price on whether he would keep Trump's campaign promise not to cut Medicare or Medicaid. Price refused to answer directly, saying only that measuring the program by dollars was "the wrong metric."
"I believe the metric ought to be the care the patients are receiving," he said.
Trump's nominees have exhibited the same reticence to offer policy specifics, or occasional answer that conflicts with the president-elect's views, at nearly every nomination hearing held this week and last. It's a reflection in part of the fact Trump's policies lack detail and change frequently, and of the fact that many of Trump's positions run counter to decades of GOP policy orthodoxy.
The conflicts won't derail their confirmations, but they add to the questions surrounding an already unpredictable administration.
Sanders Slams U.S. As Not 'Compassionate' to Poor
Sen. Bernie Sanders does not think the U.S. is a "compassionate" society towards the poor and working class.
Those were the comments he made in a testy exchange with Price in which Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, pressed Price on whether he believed health care was a "right."
"We're a compassionate society," Price began, before Sanders cut him off: "No, we are not a compassionate society."
"In terms of our relationship to poor and working people, our record is worse our record is worse than virtually any other country on earth," Sanders said.
He continued to press Price, asking whether the U.S. should move in the direction of universal care that's seen in Canada and some European nations, and Price dodged, saying "there are consequences to the decisions that they've made" and that he'll work with Sanders and others "to make certain that every single American has access to the highest quality care and coverage that is possible."
But Price stuck to the GOP stance that health care should be made "accessible" to all, not guaranteed.
"We believe it's appropriate to put in place a system that gives every person the financial feasibility to be able to purchase the coverage that they want for themselves and for their family, again not what the government forces them to buy," Price said.