Tom Price hearing: Democrats grill health pick on entitlements, stock trades

WASHINGTON – Seven weeks after he was nominated to be President-elect Donald Trump’s secretary of health and human services, Georgia U.S. Rep. Tom Price sat for the first of two confirmation hearings before the Senate Wednesday morning.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee spent roughly four hours questioning the Roswell Republican, an exceptionally long grilling, Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., noted.

The Senate health panel ultimately won't vote on Price's nomination. The Senate Finance Committee will do the honors. That panel is scheduled to question Price on Jan. 24.

Read our running blog below:

Updated at 1:39 p.m. 

If there's one exchange with Price that appeared to get under the GOP's skin, it was Elizabeth Warren's.

The Massachusetts Democrat began her questions by reading out the cuts to Medicare and Medicaid Price proposed in previous budgets before repeatedly asking Price to ensure that he wouldn't cut a dollar from entitlement programs.

Dollars are "the wrong metric," Price replied. "It's the care of the patients."

"You might to print out President-elect Trump's statement 'I am not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid' and post that above your desk in your new office because Americans will be watching to make sure you follow through on that promise," Warren said.

Price did not get a chance to respond before Warren began asking Price about his stocks.

Soon thereafter, Isakson took to the mic to call for more civility.

“I respect everybody on this committee tremendously. I respect the nominee," he said.

Regarding Price's stocks, Isakson said any senator could easily fall into similar problems, citing Philip Morris stock allegedly owned by Minnesota Democrat Al Franken.

“It’s entirely possible for any of us to have somebody making investments on our behalf and us not know where that money is invested because of the very way it works," he said.

Updated at 12:50 p.m. 

Things are beginning to slow down here as the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee's hearing approaches the three-hour mark.

Let's take a step back for a minute.

This hearing has has been an incredibly partisan one, a dizzying alternation between the fuzzy and the theatrical, depending on which side of the dais the questions are coming from.

Democrats have been relentless in their critiques of the Roswell Republican, attacking the seven-term congressman on past stock trades they see as fishy and his stances on health care and entitlement programs, which they argue are damaging.

Republicans indicated they aren't buying their colleagues' lines of attack. GOP senators have argued Price is well-qualified for the post and that he's followed the letter of the law on his finances.

Overall, Price's performance has been a steady one. He's come off as calm and informed, but he's unlikely to convince anyone to change their minds given the divisiveness of Obamacare in this day and age. And Democrats have indicated they aren't any more satisfied when it comes to his financial trades.

Gleaning what we can from senators' testimony, it looks like Price's nomination will come down to a party-line vote.

That's a stark departure from the pre-Barack Obama era, when Cabinet secretaries were often confirmed unanimously, but that still means Price will likely get the green light. If Republicans stick together, as they've shown every sign of doing in recent weeks, Democrats won't have the votes to block his confirmation.

Posted at 11:42 a.m. 

Democrats aren't giving Price much leeway, but the Republican side of the dais appears to be nothing but friendly toward Price.

Every Republican who's spoken so far, from the health committee's chairman to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (who said he had some of his training at Atlanta's Grady Hospital), have spoken nothing but words of praise for Price. And they've indicated they're not buying Democrats' attacks when it comes to Price's stock trades.

Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the chairman of the second committee that will mull Price's nomination next week, noted that some of the Democratic members of the health panel have also traded health care stocks.

“This appears to be nothing more than a Democratic attack on your good character, and I personally regret it," he said.

Trump's transition team previously alleged that Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Mark Warner of Virginia and Tom Carper of Delaware traded "hundreds of thousands of dollars in pharmaceutical and health insurance company stocks."

Posted at 11:25 a.m. 

Democrats are asking Price to clarify his positions regarding policy areas in which he differs with President-elect Trump.

When asked by Sen. Bernie Sanders about Trump's campaign pledge not to touch entitlement programs, Price said he had “no reason to believe that position has changed.” (Price himself has advocated for overhauling Medicare and converting Medicaid into a block grant program.)

The Vermont Independent and former Democratic presidential candidate also questioned Price on his past opposition to allowing Medicare to directly negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs. (Trump had previously flirted with supporting government intervention on the campaign trail, according to the medical news site STAT news, breaking with GOP precedent.)

Sanders wasn't thrilled with Price's answer, which was, "You have my commitment to work with you and others to make certain that the drug pricing is reasonable."

Regarding his general thoughts when it comes to healthcare, Price said he wants "to make certain every American has access to the highest quality of care."

Posted at 11:08 a.m. 

Price came out of his first tit-for-tat with a Senate Democrat unruffled.

Washington Democrat Patty Murray used the lion's share of her question time to grill Price some of his more controversial individual stock trades.

She said Price told her in their private meeting that he got his initial tip to purchase stock in Australian biotech firm Innate Immunotherapeutics from fellow House Republican Chris Collins, implying that Price may have had inside information.

Price flatly denied saying so. “That’s not what happened," he said.

Murray also raised questions about the timing of Price's stock purchases, when Congress was negotiating a massive medical research bill, and the purchase price.

“I believe it’s inappropriate and we need answers to this about whether you and Rep. Collins used your access to nonpublic information at prices that were not available to the public,” she said.

Price responded: “I did not have access to non-public information."

Posted at 10:50 a.m.

A few more tidbits from Price’s testimony to senators.

He mentions some of the biggest lessons learned from his years as a practicing physician, ideas that have shaped his philosophy as a legislator and will likely be a major guiding principles should he be confirmed as health secretary.

He mentioned that many of his former patients “were never more angry and frustrated than when they realized that there was someone other than themselves and/or their physician making medical decisions on their behalf – when there was someone not involved in the actual delivery of care that was standing between them and their doctor or treatment.”

Price said he also noticed there were often “more individuals within our office who were dealing with paperwork, insurance filings and government regulations than there were individuals actually seeing and treating patients.”

“It was in those moments that it became crystal clear that our health care system was losing focus on the number one priority – the individual patient,” he said.

In the first round of questions, Price said his goal regarding the replacement of Obamacare is to prevent people from losing coverage and bringing healthcare decisions closer to the states and patients.

“One of the important things we need to convey is that nobody is interested in pulling the rug out from anybody,” he said.

Posted at 10:43 a.m.

Georgia U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson delivered a full-throated endorsement of Price during his confirmation hearing.

“Tom Price believes in accountability,” he said in his largely off-the-cuff speech. “He may be the only one of us who reads all the bills.”

“Sometimes he’s boring but he’s always knowledgeable,” Isakson continued, drawing chuckles from the room.

The three-term Republican shot back at Democratic criticism regarding Price’s stock trades, singling out a blistering speech Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., gave on the floor yesterday.

He backed up the Trump transition team’s argument that Price was not aware of a purchase of Zimmer Biomet stock that was made on his behalf by a broker until a month later, after he had introduced a bill that would have directly benefitted the company.

“The allegations that were made yesterday on the Senate floor were patently wrong,” he said. “They took two correct things and put them together to say an incorrect thing.”

Isakson did the ceremonial hours of introducing Price to the committee, of which he’s also a member. He’ll soon cross the dais so he can question Price.

Posted at 10:30 a.m.

The top Democrat on the Senate health committee, Patty Murray of Washington, just laid out what regarding Price’s nomination will be in her party’s crosshairs today: Obamacare repeal and replacement, Price’s past proposal to overhaul Medicare, his former plan to turn Medicaid into a block grant program and past votes to defund Planned Parenthood.

She also sent a warning shot that Democrats won’t hesitate from bringing up Price’s past stock trades. She said she had “serious concerns and questions about your medical stock trades in your time in the House” and told Price she hoped he “comes prepared to address this issue.”

Posted at 9:58 a.m. 

Price and Isakson take their seats at the witness stand. Isakson will introduce Price to the committee, of which he's also a member. Price's wife Betty, a member of the Georgia House, is sitting behind him, as are members of his staff. U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, is also in the room.

Posted at 9:50 a.m. 

With a prime fourth row aisle seat, former U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey says he's here to offer moral support for Price, his onetime colleague and fellow physician.

"It's not just a personal endorsement of a good friend, but I feel very strongly he is, for this time in particular, the perfect candidate to lead HHS," the Marietta Republican said in a brief interview before the hearing.

Gingrey, now a lobbyist who splits his time between Washington and Georgia, penned an op-ed for The Hill newspaper yesterday laying out his case for Price.

Posted at 9:30 a.m. 

Welcome, folks. The hearing room on the fourth floor of the Dirsken Senate office building is beginning to attract a crowd.

We've got a copy of Price's prepared testimony for the committee. The seven-term congressman spends roughly a third of it discussing his career trajectory and what attracted him to the health care field, starting with his physician grandfather in Michigan. He does not address his financial history and speaks very little about specific plans for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Regarding the sprawling federal agency, he mentions six guiding principles: "affordability, accessibility, quality, choices, innovation and responsiveness."

"We all want a health care system that's affordable, that's accessible to all, of the highest quality, with the greatest number of choices, driven by world-leading innovations, and responsive to the needs of the individual patient," he plans to tell the panel.

Another notable observation. He goes out of his way to mention his bipartisan work in the Georgia Senate and House of Representatives. Former colleagues Kasim Reed, now the Democratic mayor of Atlanta, and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., get shoutouts.

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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman
Tamar Hallerman
Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that...