Hearing Update: Senate HELP Committee Holds Confirmation Hearing for Secretary of Health and Human Services Nominee

Lewis-Burke Associates LLC – January 19, 2017

On January 18, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) nominee Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), an orthopedic surgeon by training, testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee as part of his confirmation process. The HELP Committee does not vote on the HHS Secretary nomination, but because many of HHS’ services and programs fall under its jurisdiction, it is common for the HHS nominee to testify before the Committee. The nearly four-hour hearing was a largely partisan battle, but despite some tough questioning from the Democratic members of the Committee on a replacement plan for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) and conflicts of interest surrounding the nominee’s stock purchases, Rep. Price has strong Republican support and is likely to be confirmed.

While much of the hearing focused on healthcare delivery, there was some discussion of biomedical research and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) stressed the need for continued research into Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Rep. Price agreed that continued biomedical research is critical to the improved health of the nation and if confirmed he would ensure the pursuit of new cures would continue to be an HHS priority. Rep. Price also said he supports funding increases to the NIH.

During the hearing, Democrats, in particular, Senators Al Franken (D-MN), Christopher Murphy (D-CT), Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), repeatedly attacked Rep. Price’s stock portfolio, insisting that he had used his legislative power to positively impact stock purchases. Rep. Price pointedly disagreed with the assertion, and explained that the stock purchases in question were made without his knowledge on his behalf by a broker.

Republicans, as expected, praised Rep. Price throughout the hearing, asking general questions about what his version of a replacement plan for the ACA would look like. There seemed to be agreement among Rep. Price and the Committee that repeal of the ACA should occur concurrently with a replacement plan to lessen the damaging effects for those covered under the ACA. Rep. Price, while not delving in specifics, maintained that any replacement plan should be patient-centered, affordable, and focused on access to care. Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) also asked Rep. Price if a replacement bill would be used as a mechanism to push through Medicare reform, to which Rep. Price responded that it would not. Instead, Rep. Price stated that the challenges that need addressing are those in the individual and Medicaid markets.

A previously released replacement plan authored by Rep. Price, entitled the Empowering Patients First Act, could be the starting point for a replacement legislation. His bill would have covered fewer people than currently covered under the ACA. Rep. Price did not say whether his bill would be used as a blueprint for replacement, nor did he commit to unveiling a replacement plan by March 1, instead stating he would have to wait to be confirmed to work with Congress.

Rep. Price also spoke about the importance of innovation in healthcare. Citing the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI), he lamented the mandatory nature of certain demonstration projects that dictate how a patient should be treated, and stated that while he believes CMMI has the potential for innovation, its scope might need to be adjusted.

Rep. Price also touched on the importance and efficacy of electronic health records (EHRs), but mentioned that Meaningful Use Stage 3 was pushed too fast for healthcare providers to comply. Rep. Price also discussed the important role of telemedicine in healthcare, and called it an “exciting innovation” that has the potential to greatly help rural areas. Notably, he mentioned the possibility that the government might consider compensating physicians who use telemedicine to provide care.

The Senate Finance Committee, which will hold its hearing for Rep. Price on January 24, is the committee that will vote on Rep. Price’s confirmation. Lewis-Burke will continue to provide updates on Rep. Price’s confirmation process.

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