Dr. Price faces Senate HELP committee in nomination hearing

Jan. 18, 2017
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a nomination hearing for Rep. Tom Price, MD (R-Ga.) ― President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. The American Academy of Dermatology Association attended the hearing. Among several health care related issues that were addressed during the hearing, most notably Dr. Price was asked about his thoughts on a replacement for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), access to drugs, and regulatory burdens on physicians. Additionally, Dr. Price addressed concerns about his financial ties to a medical device company.

ACA replacement
When asked by Committee Chair Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) about Dr. Price’s goal for an ACA replacement plan, Dr. Price stated that health care needs to be affordable, accessible, high quality, and responsive to patients, offer incentives for innovation, and ensure choices are made by and preserved for patients. When asked about the timing of repeal and replace, he stated, “I think that one of the important things that we need to convey to the American people is that nobody is interested in pulling the rug out from anybody.” Dr. Price also expressed an interest in implementing high-risk pools and expanding the use of health savings accounts in a replacement plan to cover general health services.

Medicare drug price negotiations
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asked Dr. Price if he would join him and Democrats in efforts to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and allows drugs to be imported from Canada. Without confirming his position on government price negotiations or importation, Dr. Price stated that the cost of drugs is a high priority for all Americans and he committed to working with Congress in addressing the drug pricing issue.

Regulatory burdens
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) asked Dr. Price for his thoughts on what the government can do to address the regulatory burden that physicians are experiencing with electronic health record (EHR) requirements, such as Meaningful Use. Dr. Price said that EHRs are important from an innovative standpoint because they allow patients access to their medical history. However, he said that the federal government’s role is to ensure interoperability between EHR systems. Additionally, he indicated that the government should work more closely with providers in determining the metrics that should be measured through these systems to improve quality. “If we truly worked with the providers and asked them what we should measure, I suspect that there are some very specific things we could use.”

Government authority in health care
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) expressed his concerns about the increased authority of the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI), the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF), and the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI). Dr. Price stated his concerns about CMMI, indicating that the patient should be at the center of care and that health care treatments should not be dictated by government.

Questions on ethics
Committee Ranking Member Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned the ethics of Dr. Price’s ties to a medical device company. Recently, information has been released about Dr. Price’s personal investments and potential ties to his legislative actions. According to House records, in 2016 Dr. Price bought between $1,001 to $15,000 worth of shares in Zimmer Biomet ― a knee and hip implant manufacturer. Shortly after the purchase, Dr. Price introduced the HIP Act that would have delayed a CMS regulation that would hurt Zimmer Biomet financially. Zimmer Biomet's PAC also donated to Dr. Price's reelection campaign.

When questioned at the hearing, Dr. Price indicated that the trade in Zimmer Biomet shares in his broker-direct account was handled by a broker and also denied knowledge of nonpublic information when trading certain stocks. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) asked, “Can you confirm that you have always followed the law relating to trading in stocks while serving as a member of Congress?” Dr. Price responded, “Everything that we have done has been above board, transparent, ethical, and legal. The Office of Government Ethics has looked at our holdings and given advice on what needs to be done in terms of divesting from certain stock holdings to make certain that there are no conflicts of interest. We have read those, agreed to those, and signed those. That document is online for everybody to see.” View Dr. Price’s public financial disclosure report and his ethics agreement.

The HELP Committee hearing is considered a courtesy hearing. A formal hearing before the Senate Finance Committee ― the committee that will vote on Dr. Price’s nomination ― is scheduled for Jan. 24.