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Price Hearings Could Be Contentious With Obamacare in the Balance

Rep. Tom Price is set to appear for his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday morning where Obamacare will dominate the debate.
Image: Chairman of the House Budget Committee Tom Price (R-GA) announces the House Budget during a press conference
Chairman of the House Budget Committee Tom Price (R-GA) announces the House Budget during a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 17, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File PhotoJOSHUA ROBERTS / Reuters

President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Rep. Tom Price, will have his first Senate committee hearing Wednesday with Democrats mounting an aggressive push to block his appointment.

The hearings promise to be contentious because Senate Democrats are targeting Price, a longtime leading opponent of Obamacare, over what they see as troubling financial activity during his time in Congress overseeing health care-related legislation. There is also concern over his positions on Medicare and Medicaid and health care for women.

Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, which will hold Wednesday's hearings, have asked for the proceedings to be postponed until ethics investigations have been completed. Price will appear at a separate hearing next week in front of the Senate Finance Committee which will vote on his nomination.

“Allowing Congressman Price’s nomination to move to a hearing with questions about his ethical qualifications left unanswered would send an early, clear, and deeply troubling signal that the Senate’s critical oversight functions will be given a back seat to the demands of the Trump Administration,” Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken and Tammy Duckworth wrote in a letter to the Republican head of the health committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander.

The public interest group Public Citizen asked the Office of Congressional Ethics to look into dozens of Price’s trades of health industry stock while he sponsored legislation pertaining to the industry first reported by CNN. And media reports have suggested that Price invested in drug companies while he was working on legislation that would impact those companies.

Phillip Blando, a spokesman for Price, called the allegations “bunk.”

Price will also be under the spotlight for some of his policy positions.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, who sits on the committee, said that he was concerned with the nomination after a meeting in his Senate office Tuesday.

“Rep. Price's approach is moving us in exactly the wrong direction,” Sanders said.

Sanders said he asked Price if Trump was committed to upholding a policy he tweeted about during the campaign. Trump’s tweet said that he was the first Republican nominee to say he would not cut Social Security and Medicare.

Price said he “can’t speak for Mr. Trump,” Sanders said.

Challenges with Republicans

Price, a doctor, will be a central player in any repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, if confirmed to be secretary of HHS. Trump has said that he will unveil his plan for health care after Price is confirmed.

And it appears that he could be caught between Trump and Republicans in Congress who disagree on some major components of a new health care law to replace Obamacare.

Trump said recently that he wants to insure “everyone,” which has not been a central priority of Republicans or Rep. Price’s during his time in Congress.

Price, the current head of the House Budget Committee, has written legislation to both repeal the ACA and replace it. In his replacement plan, which focuses on tax credits for people to purchase insurance, creating pools for people to purchase insurance and the expansion of health savings accounts, his priorities are listed as “affordability, accessibility, quality, innovation, choices and responsiveness.” No where does it talk about universal coverage.

House Speaker Paul Ryan has discussed “universal access” to health care, making it cheaper for people to purchase insurance, but has not mentioned the expansion of coverage under Republicans’ plan.

Republicans, who have generally agreed with Price’s and Ryan’s goals in the past, don’t seem eager to point out the differences between Trump’s stated goal of universal coverage and their own.

“Every single nominee has had different positions than the president. I’m ok with it,” said Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who plans to introduce his own health care legislation as early as Wednesday that allows states to maintain Obamacare if they want.

Cassidy says he’s for universal coverage but admits that “there’s different Republicans saying different things” on the significant detail of universal coverage.

Head of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., which holds the nomination hearing, refused to comment on Trump’s call for the expansion of coverage, but indicated he won’t ask Price to comment.

“I thought that was a very interesting observation and I’m going to wait until I see his plan in February,” Alexander said, referring to Trump.

Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, and a member of Republican leadership, said that he wouldn’t start discussing universal coverage because, “I don’t want to start making promises.”

But Trump is making promises, putting Republicans on Capitol Hill in a bind between their free-market ideology and a president who doesn’t wholly subscribe to traditional Republican principles.

And if Price isn’t quizzed about it during his confirmation hearing, his Congressional colleagues will likely be relied upon as a conduit between Congress and the president.