Trump’s HHS cabinet pick eludes Congress’s Q&A about Trumpcare specifics; questionable stock investments obscure his suitability to run the US health show

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The News:

@RepTomPrice, nominee for @HHSgov secretary, rejected conflict of interest accusations Click To Tweet

Georgia Rep. Tom Price, President Trump’s choice for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, on Tuesday rejected conflict of interest and abuse of power accusations related to stock investments.

“The reality is that everything that I did was ethical, above board, legal and transparent,” Price told the Senate Finance Committee, mirroring a message from the previous week in heated exchanges with members of another committee.

Picking up where he left off at last week’s first confirmation hearing by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Price was pressed repeatedly by lawmakers to clarify his views on repealing the Affordable Care Act–a top priority for both President Trump and the GOP under his new administration.

Price has also been criticized for actively trading in stocks for Australian pharmaceutical company Innate Immunotherapeutics during the time that he was promoting legislation that could affect the company. Dr. Price said he did not trade the stocks directly but rather through a broker, according to UPI.

In one particularly heated exchange with Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, Price was asked whether turning Medicaid into a block grant program would mean fewer people would be eligible in the future, says CNN. The decades-old entitlement program extends health coverage to low-income Americans, and Menendez noted that as an entitlement program, anyone who meets the criteria currently has the right to be covered.

“When you move to a block grant, do you still have the right?” Menendez asked.

“No, I think it would be determined by how that was set up,” Price said.

Price’s apparent acknowledgement that some low-income Americans may not be covered if Republicans move Medicaid over to a block grant system would mark a radical shift in the purpose that the program is supposed to serve.

During the campaign, Trump initially said he wouldn’t cut Medicaid, but later expressed support for the block grant formula. But still, even as he publicly backed reforming the program, Trump has been adamant that the government has a duty to help the poor.

Tuesday (January 24, 2017), Price acknowledged Medicaid is vital but insisted it was troubled. The federal government should leave it to governors and state insurance commissioners to decide how best to cover their low-income residents, Price noted, and that he wants any Obamacare replacement bill to provide coverage options for every American.

Once again, Price would not say that he was working with Trump on an Obamacare alternative, saying instead: “I’ve had conversations with the President about health care, yes.”

When it was all said and done, Democrats on the Finance Committee had put Mr. Price through three and a half hours of grueling interrogation. But they appeared unlikely to block his confirmation unless other damaging information comes to light.

“We’ve always known where the votes are,” said Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), the senior Democrat on the committee. The panel could vote next week on whether to recommend confirmation, with its Republican majority strongly supporting Mr. Price, according to The New York Times.

Wyden asked Price if he would promise that no one would be worse off and no one would lose coverage as a result of the order. Dr. Price declined to provide an explicit assurance. He promised instead to work with Congress to “make certain that we have the highest-quality health care and that every single American has access to affordable coverage.”

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently said a repeal of Obamacare would increase the number of people without health insurance by 18 million in the first year and 32 million by the year 2026.

Steve’s Take:

I attended a law school that was literally several blocks from the White House. Just a couple of stops on a DC Transit Bus and there I was, right up on Capitol Hill and at the Supreme Court.

After four years in school and a five-year stint with the National Office of the IRS, if it’s one thing I learned it’s that the appearance of impropriety can be every bit, if not more, important to a federal government job than actual conflicts of interest. The latter are at least out in the open for examination. The former are shadowy, imprecise and difficult to measure, as far as their significance goes. They can be de minimis and thus trivial or far more substantive, even dangerous.

Getting to the bottom of such conflicts in these Congressional hearings starts with a nominee being authentic and forthright when questioned about dubious behavior and speaking the truth when legitimately criticized. Concomitantly, a nominee must possess the actual competence and commitment to carry out their duties because, after all, the job of a cabinet secretary requires the understanding and acceptance that serving the public, not one’s private interests, is paramount.

Republicans have pointed out that Rep. Price has a broker-directed account with hundreds of stocks which inevitably includes some healthcare companies in order to be “properly diversified across sectors.” But what’s more important for a candidate to be secretary of health–a properly diversified stock portfolio, or zero appearance of impropriety as a public servant running the whole healthcare show for Americans?

That’s the unanswered quandary and one of my biggest conundrums. It’s a question of which interest Dr. Price is committed to serve first and foremost–the public’s or his retirement nest egg.

Dr. Price’s assertion that he didn’t really know what was happening in his investment account strains credibility to the max. After decades of working in the investment field, I believe very few people don’t know most of what comprises their investment portfolio.

And with Dr. Price spending his entire professional career in the healthcare arena, his suggestion he was unaware of the individual healthcare stocks he had purchased is hard to swallow. Supposing he actually did have knowledge of his healthcare holdings, it’s likely human nature would bring such awareness to any healthcare legislation in which he was involved.

Again, whether such awareness influenced his decisions about legislative policy is another matter. This is where the “appearance” of impropriety can’t simply be erased with the bald statement “I didn’t know.”

It is clear to me that Dr. Price really wants to be a part of the Trump administration, and if confirmed, would run the entire Department of Health and Human Services. However, merely saying that with a Republican president soon to actually sign GOP healthcare legislation into law, he agrees to divest all healthcare stocks, “to avoid any appearance of conflicts of interest” is simply too little, too late.

The Nation points out it’s been argued with some validity that, “budgets are moral documents, as the priorities they outline reveal the values of the political figures who draft, debate, and enact them. And if this is the case then, surely, presidential cabinets must be understood as moral constructs, as the men and women who are nominated reveal not just their personalities but the values that will guide the incoming administration.”

But debates about cabinet nominees often fail to reflect on the moral values of the candidates and the agendas they espouse. That’s regrettable, because those who help guide a government should be compelled to confront and reveal their own moral compass, and let the chips fall where they may.

The process by which senators offer their advice and consent with regard to cabinet nominations should weigh those choices, and the policies that extend from them, says The Nation. But only a few legislators are genuinely willing to hold nominees to account on fundamental matters of right and wrong.

That is why the pointed, and often scorching, interrogation by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Dr. Price, was so essential. The congressman has made it his mission to gut not just the Affordable Care Act but the entire safety net with its minimal protections for poorer Americans, working families, people with disabilities, and retirees.

“If confirmed,” argue leaders of the National Nurses United healthcare union, “it is clear that Rep. Price will pursue policies that substantially erode our nation’s health and security–eliminating health coverage, reducing access, shifting more costs to working people and their families, and throwing our most sick and vulnerable fellow Americans at the mercy of the healthcare industry.”

Don’t misunderstand me, however. Dr. Price is a career politician with the intelligence and skill to obfuscate his real intentions and confound the conversation. Like others of his ilk, he is deft at pivoting away from topics he doesn’t wish to address and juke out of harm’s way.

Sen. Sanders, however, was not about to fall for such moves.

In his questioning of Price during last week’s committee hearing, Sanders pressed him to answer basic questions–and to address conflicts between the superficial rhetoric of cabinet nominees and the stark reality of the dubious and sometimes dangerous policies they advance:

SANDERS: The United States of America is the only major country on earth that does not guarantee health care to all people as a right. Canada does it, every major country in Europe does it.

Do you believe that health care is a right of all Americans, whether they’re rich or they’re poor? Should all people, because they are Americans, be able to go to the doctor when they need to, be able to go to the hospital, because they are Americans?

PRICE: Yes. We are a compassionate society…

SANDERS: No, we are not a compassionate society. In terms of our relationship to poor and working people, our record is worse than virtually any other country on Earth. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any other major country on Earth. And half of our senior older workers have nothing set aside for retirement. So I don’t think, compared to other countries, we are particularly compassionate.

My question is: In Canada, in other countries, all people have the right to health care. Do you believe we should move in that direction?

PRICE: If you want to talk about other countries’ healthcare systems, there are consequences to the decisions that they’ve made, just as there are consequences to the decisions that we’ve made. I look forward to working with you to make sure that every single American has access to the highest-quality care and coverage that is possible.

SANDERS: “Has access to” does not mean that they are guaranteed health care. I have access to buying a $10 million home. I don’t have the money to do that.

Price tried mightily to shirk an honest dialogue about the moral issues that should be at the very center of the healthcare debate in America, conjuring up the platitude about how, “we believe it is appropriate to give every person the financial feasibility to purchase the coverage they want for themselves and their family…not what the government forces them to buy.”

My apologies, but this latter assertion about “what the government forces them to buy, “was another spin move, right off the gridiron or basketball court. Dr. Price is a highly intelligent physician by training and key player in the national healthcare debate.

He’s well aware of the complexities and competing interests at stake in America’s healthcare system going forward. But rather than address the thorny issues in a straightforward manner, he has so far used the juke, pivot and spin moves he’s learned and separated himself by a wide chasm from the likes of Sen. Sanders.

I agree with those who say the congressman’s gamesmanship on such a crucial matter as the health care of his country revealed almost all that need be known for a cabinet seat nominee as health secretary. And then there’s the matter of his two little, too late, promise about the vesting his stock holdings.

Dr. Price apparently won’t entertain the basic premise that healthcare is a right, as opposed to a privilege. He chooses not to address the moral dilemma arising when wealthy Americans know they can attend to their most insignificant health problems regardless of the cost, while the vast majority of Americans simply don’t know whether they and their families can get the care they need to stay alive.

After the first hearing, Sanders tweeted two messages:

“We have to ensure health care as a right, not give the wealthy $346B in tax breaks while 32 million people are thrown off health insurance,” argued the senator. And, he added, “#PriceIsWrong.” (I just got the double entendre.)

Lastly, in Dr. Price’s defense, it’s quite possible he is just as totally confused and in the dark about Trump’s “really great” healthcare plan as the rest of us. Perhaps the reason he has offered few answers about whether the Trump administration is working on its own Affordable Care Act legislation is because he’s not involved in drafting it and, therefore, hasn’t a clue.

Steve's Take: Once @RepTomPrice is confirmed we will know more about the fate of #Obamacare Click To Tweet

I’m betting that once Tom Price is confirmed as health secretary next week, both he and the rest of us will start getting some answers.