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Questions Await Health Secretary Pick  01/18 06:17

   With coverage for millions of people at stake, Rep. Tom Price is facing 
pointed questions about President-elect Donald Trump's health policies -- and 
his own investments in health care companies -- from senators considering his 
selection as health secretary.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- With coverage for millions of people at stake, Rep. Tom 
Price is facing pointed questions about President-elect Donald Trump's health 
policies --- and his own investments in health care companies --- from senators 
considering his selection as health secretary.

   While Price, an orthopedic surgeon-turned-lawmaker, is largely a known 
quantity on Capitol Hill, Trump's bottom line on health care remains a mystery 
for Democrats and Republicans alike. Trump campaigned on repealing "Obamacare," 
but at times he's sounded more like a liberal, for example, with recent 
comments about providing insurance for everyone and taking on the drug 
companies.

   The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee scheduled a 
hearing on Price's nomination for Wednesday.

   Price, 62, represents Atlanta's northern suburbs and chairs the House Budget 
Committee. A budget hawk and a social conservative, he drafted his own plan to 
replace President Barack Obama's 2010 health care law. It would have saved 
taxpayers money but covered fewer people, according to an outside analysis.

   Democrats intend to question Price about the impact of Trump's plans to 
repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, now providing coverage for about 20 
million people.

   "Tom Price is one of the most extreme and partisan Washington insiders," 
said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, the ranking Democrat on the 
committee. "We have to consider what he would do to impact people in every 
corner of this country."

   Democrats will also zero in on Price's investments, which have prompted 
questions about potential conflicts of interest and calls for a Securities and 
Exchange Commission investigation of possible insider trading. Senior 
Democratic senators want to pause the nomination until an investigation can be 
completed, a request Republicans are unlikely to grant.

   Last week, Price signed a government ethics agreement pledging to sell his 
stocks, but that didn't stop the questions. The latest controversy involves 
Price's purchase last year of stock in Zimmer Biomet, a major medical device 
manufacturer. The acquisition came around the same time that Price introduced 
legislation to suspend Medicare rules seen as problematic for such companies.

   "This isn't a witch hunt. These are serious and disquieting allegations," 
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said Tuesday.

   Trump transition team spokesman Phillip Blando said the Zimmer Biomet 
purchase was directed by Price's stockbroker as part of ongoing management of 
the congressman's investments. The spokesman also said Price had no advance 
knowledge and had not directed the broker to consider the company. Government 
records show that Price was notified about the purchase more than a week after 
he offered the legislation. His spokesman said Price had been working on the 
bill for months.

   Republican senators are closing ranks behind Price on the ethics questions, 
but they want him to provide a better sense of Trump's ultimate objectives on 
health care. Over the weekend, the president-elect told The Washington Post 
that he is close to having a plan that will provide insurance for everybody and 
lower some costs. That surprised many on Capitol Hill, where Republicans are 
still looking for a path.

   Republican economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin called Price "patient" and 
"thoughtful" --- "not a fiery orator."

   The Department of Health and Human Services, which Price would lead, has a 
$1 trillion budget and about 80,000 employees. It runs major health insurance 
programs, including Medicare, Medicaid and HealthCare.gov. Price would also be 
ultimately responsible for the Food and Drug Administration, the National 
Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

   Generally, Republicans want to overhaul the health care system to shift a 
greater financial responsibility and risk to individuals. They argue that would 
help create a genuine market for medical care, leading consumers to demand 
lower prices for services.

   Republicans would also loosen many Obama-era regulations on insurers, such 
as limits on how much older customers can be charged, and requirements that 
certain benefits be covered. They would cap the tax-free status of 
employer-provided health insurance. And Price favors limitations on jury awards 
in malpractice cases.

   Emergency room doctor Leon Haley, dean of the University of Florida College 
of Medicine-Jacksonville, has known Price for nearly 20 years, since they both 
practiced at Grady Memorial Hospital, a major safety-net institution in the 
Atlanta area.

   Although Price's financial disclosure forms show him to be a millionaire, 
Haley says he believes that Price is aware of the needs of low-income patients. 
"I don't believe he would make any intentional decisions that will harm 
patients," said Haley.

   That said, repealing "Obamacare" carries risks. "What happens after the 
original plan goes away?" asked Haley. "If they want to choose something 
different, that is completely within the purview of the new administration. But 
until we have a defined plan, if you start removing things without adequate 
supports, that's a concern."

   HELP is one of two Senate committees that will hold hearings on Price. The 
Finance Committee, which actually votes on reporting the nomination to the 
Senate floor, will conduct a hearing next week.


(KA)

 
 
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