CONFIRMATION HEARING: Rep. Tom Price, Health and Human Services nominee

4 min read

This is a special view on the confirmation hearings provided by POPVOX interns from Brown University. We hope you enjoy and learn from their fresh perspective and front-row seat on Capitol Hill.

On Wednesday, members of the Senate held a confirmation hearing for Rep. Tom Price [R, GA-6] to serve as Secretary of Health and Human Services. Price has served as a Representative since 2004, so he is a well-known figure to the Senate. The hallmark of Price’s nomination was his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, drawing significant support for Senate Republicans and criticism from Senate Democrats.


Wait, so what is a confirmation hearing?

The Constitution requires the “advice and consent” of the Senate for the Cabinet. In order for a Cabinet nominee to be confirmed, they must go through a hearing with the relevant Senate Committee. For the Secretary of Health and Human Services, it is the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. The nominee must be approved by the committee before going to the Senate floor for a full vote.


So who's on Senate HELP?

Senate HELP is chaired by Sen. Lamar Alexander [R, TN], with Sen. Patty Murray [D, WA] serving as Ranking Member. The committee is comprised of 12 Republicans and 11 Democrats. See if your member serves on Senate HELP.


So, what does the Department of Health and Human Services do?

 The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) oversees programs involved with public health, social services, and medicine — ranging from Medicaid and Medicare to food stamps, the Food and Drug Administration, addiction treatment programs. This includes the Affordable Care Act, often discussed in the news. If confirmed as Secretary, Price would be in charge of determining the funding and implementation of over 100 programs HHS administers.


Who is Rep. Tom Price?

Before running for state office in Georgia, Price was an orthopaedic surgeon. He has served in the U.S. House of Representatives for sixteen years, and most recently has been a strong opponent to the Affordable Care Act. Price has proposed his own alternative health care proposal four times. Compared to other cabinet nominees, Price has considerable experience with the programs that fall under HHS regulation. 

Why should I care?

 Given its wide set of responsibilities, chances are the HHS administers a program that affects you in some way. The secretary will steer the direction of government assistance through the regulation of Medicare and Medicaid, and also directs immunization and drug testing, showing an opportunity to speed up approval of new medicine. Most pressing to 2016 voters, however, is Price’s ability to change the implementation of the Affordable Care Act . Congress has taken the first step in repealing the ACA through a budget resolution last week, so Price would play a pivotal role in shaping the replacement legislation.


What happened in the actual hearing?

Well over 100 people lined up for Price’s hearing, but only about 5 made it into the actual room. The largest group of protesters came from Planned Parenthood, as they delivered a petition to block Price’s confirmation. The Senate HELP Committee opened with disagreements about how much time each Senator had to ask questions, which had come up in Betsy DeVos’s hearing as well. Chair Lamar Alexander [R, TN] decided to give each Senator seven minutes for questions instead of the standard five.

Sen. Johnny Isakson [R, GA], introduced Price, drawing on his extensive experience as a doctor and Representative. Given the partisan nature of health care, there were sharp divisions in the questioning between Democrats and Republicans. Sen. Bernie Sanders, [I, VT] began his time by asking Price if he considered healthcare a right, and Price replied saying he believes everyone should have access to the coverage they want (which he repeated several times throughout the hearing). Sanders rebutted by pointing out that “access is different from ability.” Price’s plan for replacing for the Affordable Care Act took up most of the time, as Democrats asked for assurance that certain protections from the law would remain.


Sen. Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren [D, MA], asked Price about his Medicare plans, referencing Trump’s campaign promise not to cut funding. Price avoided a direct answer, instead responding that he wanted to make sure that certain care was actually being received by patients.


The repeal and replacement plan for the ACA was a large part of many Republicans’ campaigns in 2016, so Chair Alexander was careful to emphasize the importance of having a plan in place before repealing. Republicans on the committee characterized the three biggest issues of the ACA as the individual market, the employer mandate to cover employees, and the medicaid expansion, and Sen. Susan Collins [R, ME], along with Price, conceded that coverage increased, but the consequences were too high.


Sen. Rand Paul, [R, KY], highlighted Price’s continued effort to repeal ACA since it passed; Price has been introducing some form of his Empowering Patients First Act since 2009. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, [D, RI], wanted assurance that under the new plan people would be able to stay on their parents’ plans until they were 26, but Price said that it was already an understood rule in the healthcare industry, and denied it was necessary to put into law. Both Sen. Maggie Hassan [D, NH], and Sen. Tim Kaine, [D, VA], were concerned about people who would be left without coverage under the new plan, and although Price promised to not “pull the rug out from under anyone,” he gave no commitment to funding. Price also promised to Sen. Paul that he would legalize all health care, taking away the minimum requirements for coverage created in the ACA.


While ACA replacement dominated The conversation, Democrats devoted a large portion of their time to questioning Price on his controversial stock purchase with a medical supply company two weeks before he introduced the HIP ACT (H.R. 4848), which caused the company’s stock prices to rise. Price continued to defend himself, saying that the stock was bought through a broker and he had no knowledge of the purchase before introducing the bill. Sen. Hatch offered defense as well, reminding everyone that House rules require financial disclosures every year.

The final major area of disagreement related to drug prices. Sen. Sanders and Sen. Tammy Baldwin [D, WI] brought up Trump’s desire to have Medicare negotiate drug prices, which conflicted with past comments from Price, but Price said he would defer to the president’s policy. He was evasive about agreeing that drug prices were too high and maintained that good work had already been done.

People watching the hearing from one of two overflow rooms

Only two senators, Sen. Warren and Sen. Murray, brought up issues of women’s health, but Price refused to say there was a problem with access or cost, and referenced people from his clinic who always found a way to get birth control. Sen. Murray also cited a statistic that minorities are twice as likely to be covered under the ACA, but Price also rejected the notion that a replacement would harm minorities, stating that his goal was access to coverage for everyone.


So what happens now?

The HELP Committee will not vote on whether to send Rep. Price to the Senate floor with a favorable recommendation. The wide authority of the HHS secretary meant that the actual hearing will happen next week with the Senate Finance Committee. In the meantime, tell your senator what you think!


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