Trump nominee defends administration’s assault on health care

In his final appearance before the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday, Rep. Tom Price (Republican of Georgia), Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), arrogantly dismissed questioning from committee Democrats about the new administration’s planned assault on Medicare, Medicaid and health care in general.

Queried on whether he supported block-granting of Medicaid, privatization of Medicare, and certain guarantees of health care coverage, Price responded with the stock answer: “People will have access to the highest quality of health care at an affordable price.” He rejected any suggestion that millions of people would be denied coverage due to the simple fact that they cannot afford it.

Price, a Tea Party Republican and current chair of the House Budget Committee, opposes the Affordable Care Act (ACA), President Obama’s signature domestic legislation, from the right. In 2015, Price presented his “Empowering Patients First Act,” which calls for repealing the ACA and all its mandates, and cutting $449 billion over the next decade from Medicare, the government insurance program for seniors and the disabled, and $1.1 trillion from Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor jointly administered by the federal government and the states.

Democrats posturing as opponents of the Republicans’ attack on health care had little to offer in their own defense, except a degree of exasperation at Price’s stonewalling. The program popularly known as Obamacare, while providing modest government subsidies and guaranteeing some “essential” services and protections against discrimination in coverage, is based on the for-profit health care system, with its “individual mandate” requiring individuals without insurance to purchase coverage from the private insurers.

The HHS nominee’s performance before the Senate committee was characterized by smug obfuscation and a refusal to go on the record with any of his health care beliefs or policies. Having served more than a decade in the House, much of it spent crusading for his far-right health care agenda, he repeatedly insisted that his job as HHS secretary would be as an “administrator” and not a “legislator.”

Thus he repeatedly refused to answer “yes” or “no” to questioning by Sen. Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, on whether he would support block-granting of Medicaid, saying that would be up to Congress to legislate. In fact, Price’s “Empowering Patients” bill calls for both repeal of the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA (which newly insured about 10 million people) and block-granting the health program for the poor.

While under current law the federal government picks up a percentage of states’ Medicaid costs, under block-granting states would receive a capped dollar amount that would not keep pace with health care costs, due to increased enrollment caused by rising unemployment or other factors.

The end result would force states to handle their Medicaid funding crises by making draconian cuts to eligibility, benefits and provider payment rates. Millions of the poorest Americans who are eligible for Medicaid would thus be denied benefits. This is the intended aim of those promoting block-granting, despite claims that it would give “power back to the states” to better administer the program.

Trump, who vowed during the presidential campaign that he “wouldn’t touch” Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, now openly supports block-granting. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway confirmed this in an appearance on NBC News Sunday morning, saying the president supports block grants, and that with them “you really cut out the fraud, waste and abuse, and you get the help directly” to beneficiaries. In other words, federal funding will be slashed as a result.

To questions put by Sen. Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey: “Do you not seek to privatize Medicare?” and “Do you not seek to ultimately offer a voucher as your way of providing a greater affordability for Medicare?” Price answered “no” to both. In reality, congressional Republicans, including Price and House Speaker Paul Ryan, have long eyed the program, which covers more than 55 million elderly Americans, for privatization.

Price refused to answer questions from Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the committee, on whether people would be worse off or lose coverage under an ACA repeal, and whether there would be a replacement in place if and when Obamacare is repealed. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that more than 30 million Americans could lose their health insurance coverage if the ACA is repealed without a replacement.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, queried Price on whether recent Trump statements were true that Price was working with Trump on a replacement plan for the ACA “which is nearly finished and will be revealed after your confirmation.” Price cynically replied, “It’s true that he said that, yes,” drawing laughter from the hearing room.

Earlier in the day’s hearing, Price also defended himself against new allegations contained in a bipartisan staff memo circulated among Finance Committee members. The memo alleges that he undervalued the amount of stock he owned in an Australian biotech firm on his financial disclosure forms and that he did not properly disclose late tax payments on rental properties.

Price responded to questioning by Wyden on the investments: “The reality is that everything that I did was ethical, above board, legal and transparent.” It is unlikely that this issue and earlier questioning on other investments by Price will turn any of the Republicans on the Finance Committee against the nominee.

Concluding the hearing, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, chairman of the committee, said of Price’s performance: “We’ve never had a witness that has performed as well as you have,” and bemoaned the “hyper-politicization of the nomination process.” He called the Democrats’ questioning on Price’s ethics “specious and distorted.”

Hatch summed up the attitude of the ruling elite and its most right-wing political representatives on health care and social spending in general. “We’ve got to end this liberal clap-trap that we don’t have to pay the piper,” he said. The chairman said he was tired of the idea that “we’ve got to do everything for everybody,” adding, “Money doesn’t grow on trees.”

A vote will take place on Price’s nomination this week in the Finance Committee, which is expected to be in his favor, largely along party lines. The nomination will then go to the full Senate for a vote.