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Democrats Ask HHS Chief: Do You Plan to Sabotage Obamacare?

Democrats pressed Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price about whether the Trump administration will try to kill Obamacare.
Image: US Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Tom Price and Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Mick Mulvaney
Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, left, and Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney.Michael Reynolds / EPA

Congressional Democrats pressed Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price on Wednesday about whether the Trump administration will try to sabotage insurance markets to bring about the demise of Obamacare in the wake of Republicans' failed attempt to repeal the health care program.

“I want to make it very clear that we will call out any attempt by your department to undermine Americans’ health coverage,” Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) said in opening remarks at the House Appropriations Committee hearing. “I hope you’re not inclined to seek a ‘death by a thousands cuts’ to decimate the ACA.”

Price, for his part, offered few hints as to the White House’s next steps.

In his testimony to the panel, Price repeatedly returned to a broad pledge of “making sure the American people have access to affordable coverage” when pressed on specifics. At the same time, he said that the administration “will enforce the law of the land” when it comes to items like the individual mandate to purchase insurance. At one point, he made a distinction between the White House’s “aspirational” goals on issues like essential health benefits versus the law as written.

The Appropriations Committee hearing was the first chance for lawmakers to grill Price on the path forward after the White House conceded last week it did not have the votes to dismantle and replace Obamacare.

President Donald Trump has said he plans on waiting for Obamacare to “explode” to create political pressure on Democrats to negotiate. With experts saying the individual insurance market is relatively stable for now, Democrats are concerned Price will use executive actions to make Trump’s vision a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) said she wanted assurances that the White House would look to "strengthen the individual marketplace" rather than "sabotaging it for political gain."

RELATED: 7 ways the Trump administration could make Obamacare explode

On one of the biggest outstanding issues, Price kept his cards close to the vest. The House is currently suing the White House to block an ACA cost sharing program that pays insurers to provide more generous insurance with fewer out-of-pocket expenses to low-income beneficiaries.

Without these payments, major insurers could pull out of the individual insurance market and some Republican leaders have suggested authorizing the funding to encourage stability. Price told DeLauro he could not address the the issue as the administration was now technically the defendant in the case.

Price also refused to commit to maintaining advertising and customer service support during the next enrollment period for Obamacare's exchanges, saying such decisions would be made further down the line. The White House pulled TV ads in the final days of the latest enrollment period, before Price was confirmed, which Democrats complained depressed late signups.

"I haven't had any discussions about that," Price told DeLauro, who pressed him several times to give a clearer answer.
Price similarly provided little guidance on whether he would seek to significantly change the rules governing "Essential Health Benefits," a list of 10 required coverage areas that were a major sticking point in negotiations over the House bill. HHS could seek to water down the definition of what items are included under the mandate and potentially refuse to enforce EHB requirements.

“What we believe is that it’s important for every American to choose the kind of coverage that they want,” Price said in response to one of several questions from Rep. Barbara Lee (R-CA) on the topic. He added later that “we are committed to carrying out the law of the land.”

Democrats weren’t the only ones to raise questions about the administration’s priorities. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) told Price he was “extremely concerned” by the White House’s proposal to cut $5.8 billion from the National Institute for Health next year, which conducts medical research. Price said the cuts would be focused on lowering overhead and “indirect expenses” rather than the research itself.