WASHINGTON — Earlier this week, Rep. Tom Price, MD (R-Ga.), President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, survived a second grilling by Senate Democrats. Committee members demanded answers regarding Price’s controversial stock trades and his views on Medicaid block grants.
Partisan Jousting Marks Price Hearing for HHS Post
President Trump’s nominee to lead the Health and Humans Services Department, Rep. Tom Price, MD, endured another round of aggressive questions from Democrats during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Finance on Tuesday.
Both the President and the Vice President are on the record saying Price will be a critical player in designing a replacement for the Affordable Care Act, which Trump ordered repealed in an executive order signed Jan. 20, so Democrats attacked with a laser focus.
Committee chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said that Price has been the target of “grossly exaggerated and distorted attacks,” referencing Senate Democrats’ investigation into Price’s stock trades as well as aggressive questioning last week during a “courtesy hearing” before the Senate HELP Committee.
“I have never seen this level of partisan rancor,” Hatch said.
Trump: U.S. Will Withdraw from TPP
President Trump announced Monday that he intends to have the U.S. withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, although experts differed about the withdrawal’s effect on the pharmaceutical industry.
The president signed a memo to the U.S. Trade Representative making the withdrawal official, although it is seen as largely symbolic since the Senate had not yet ratified the partnership and many observers thought ratification was unlikely.
“It is the policy of my Administration to represent the American people and their financial well-being in all negotiations, particularly the American worker, and to create fair and economically beneficial trade deals that serve their interests,” the memo said.
The TPP includes many provisions that would involve the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, including some that would increase the number of entities that were patentable and others that might result in restoring certain patent periods for brand-name drugs. Industry had lobbied for these provisions, but they were unpopular with international aid groups such as Médecins Sans Frontières, who argued that it would keep generic drugs unavailable in poor countries.
ACA Divisions in the Spotlight at House Hearing
Divisions over the Affordable Care Act (ACA) were on full display Tuesday at a House Budget Committee hearing on problems with the law.
The ACA “has been nothing but a series of broken promises,” interim committee chair Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) said at the start of the hearing. “Patients have lost doctors and insurance plans, premiums and deductibles have skyrocketed … and small businesses have been forced to reduce their benefits and wages.”
“Obama promised that this law would lower premiums by $2,500 a year for an average family. In reality, the complete opposite has been true,” she continued. “For working folks across the country, more money out of their paychecks just to pay for healthcare makes life much harder … As a nurse for over 40 years, I know we can do better.”
HHS ‘Gag Order’ Not That Unusual, Experts Say
The Trump administration’s “gag order” on the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which prevents the agency from communicating with Congress and other public officials, may be discomforting to some, but it’s not entirely unusual, say experts.
“It’s not unreasonable, since there are no administration appointees as of yet at HHS, so [there is] no one to represent the Administration’s positions,” Gail Wilensky, PhD, a senior fellow at Project HOPE in Bethesda, Md. and former administrator under President George H.W. Bush of what is now the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, wrote in an email.
On Tuesday, the Huffington Post reported that HHS sub-agency officials “have been told not to send ‘any correspondence to public officials’ … Instead, they have been asked to refer questions to agency leadership until the leadership has had time to meet with incoming White House staff about the new administration’s policies and objectives, according to a congressional official who was also informed of the communications freeze.”
But the article also noted that the freeze was limited: “Bill Hall, a spokesman for HHS, said that the agency was not restricting all forms of communications with the public or the media, but instead was directing officials to limit communications about proposed or pending regulations. ‘There is no directive to do otherwise.'” The administration’s memo also indicated that the freeze would stay in effect only until Feb. 3.
Group Angles for More Value-Based Payment Efforts
Paying physicians based on their quality of care and outcomes needs to be better encouraged, a group of healthcare executives and experts said here.
“The transition between fee-for-service payment in healthcare to a value-based type of payment is the most significant and important development in healthcare since the widespread adoption of health insurance,” Mike Leavitt, former Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush and now a healthcare consultant, said at a briefing Wednesday sponsored by the American Society of Anesthesiologists, the Healthcare Leadership Council, and several other organizations.
“Much has been learned, but we are not yet as good at this as we need to be, and we need to put pressure on the system to adopt this,” he said. “Not political pressure, but on achieving the economic stimulation — not in [the form of a] government subsidy, but the pressure of payers to continue this moving forward.”
On Tuesday, the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations will discuss strengthening Medicaid.
And the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget will examine ACA repeal-and-replace strategies.
On Wednesday, the House Committee on Education and the Work Force will discuss patient-centered solutions to healthcare reform.
And the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Health will discuss strategies for strengthening Medicaid.
On Thursday, the same House E & C Subcommittee will discuss insurance reform.
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