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From Health Law Daily, February 10, 2017

Price confirmed as HHS Secretary amid heavily partisan scrutiny and support

By Kayla R. Bryant, J.D.

Representative Tom Price (R-Ga) was confirmed as the new HHS Secretary on the morning of February 10, 2017, in a narrow Senate vote of 52-47. The physician faced considerable scrutiny from Democratic senators, who honed in not only on his hopes to change Medicare and Medicaid to reduce spending growth, but also his personal investments and ethical history. Senators voted according to their party lines.

Health policy views. Through the Empowering Patients First Act, Price has repeatedly proposed a detailed health reform plan that would replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148), loosen federal insurance regulations, and provide more authority to states. While chairman of the House Budget Committee, he expressed support for ideas that would provide a fixed government contribution for each Medicare beneficiary, and has endorsed Medicaid block grants. When confronted with particular policy questions such as repealing Medicaid expansion, he deferred to the legislature, despite his proposed bill’s full repeal of expansion without replacement. However, Price stated that everyone should have access to coverage, and pointed to the difficulty Medicaid beneficiaries have in finding a doctor as an example of the need for reform due to the current low reimbursement rates and regulatory hassle.

Despite his access statement, Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash) pleaded with the Senate before the vote to oppose Price’s confirmation, citing his desire to defund Planned Parenthood and views on the affordability of contraceptives as an example of Price’s desire to impede women’s health. She also believed that his opposition to negotiating lower drug prices and desire to reduce federal funding for Medicare and Medicaid directly opposed President Trump’s promises for lower cost, higher quality insurance for all.

Previous investments. Price has been a House member since 2005, and has worked to shape health policy on the Ways and Means Committee. During the confirmation process, various senators zoomed in on his active investments in medical and pharmaceutical companies during his policy work. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore) alleged that Price pursued policies that would have helped his portfolio and used his position to gain special access to an investment. Price stated that he did not have nonpublic information about an Australian company of which he held shares purchased through a private offering after he was accused of having a conflict of interest, but Democrats also pointed to understatement of the value of his shares. In his hearing, Price denied any wrongdoing and stated that his investments were ethical and transparent.

Outlook. Republican legislators have been quick to express support for Price. Representatives Walden (R-Ore) and Burgess (R-Texas) believe that Price’s history as a physician will serve him well as HHS Secretary and a leader of patient-centered health reform. Representative Chabot (R-Ohio) also expressed the opinion that Price has a history of prioritizing patient care and wellness above all else.

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