Senate Democrats accused President Trump’s pick for health secretary Tuesday of abusing his position through stock trading, and warned the Georgia Republican not to implement an executive order targeting Obamacare before the GOP offers a replacement, saying it would put vulnerable Americans at risk.
Democrats don’t have the votes to derail Rep. Tom Price’s nomination to lead the Health and Human Services Department, but that hasn’t stopped them from highlighting the nominee’s policy rifts with Mr. Trump and railing against Mr. Price’s decision to buy shares in companies that could have been impacted by his actions in Congress.
Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said it is hard to see how the congressman’s decision to trade in health-related stocks while serving as an influential policy guru amounts to “anything but a conflict of interest and an abuse of his position.”
Mr. Wyden noted that Mr. Price purchased an Australian biotech company at a discounted rate available only to select investors after he heard about the company from a fellow House Republican who serves on Innate Immunotherapeutics’s board.
“Yes or no. Does this show bad judgment?” Mr. Wyden, of Oregon, said at the outset of Tuesday’s confirmation hearing.
Mr. Price said it did not, as he’d disclosed his trades in real time, as required by law.
“Everything I did was ethical, above board, legal and transparent,” the Georgia Republican said.
Mr. Wyden said the stock is worth about $250,000, or five times the $50,000 Mr. Price cited in forms to the committee, though the nominee said he thought senators were seeking information on its value at the time of purchase.
Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, defended Mr. Price, characterizing the attacks as “specious and distorted.” He said Mr. Price is an experienced and honorable man who will guide the agency and its $1 trillion-plus budget with distinction.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that HHS touches more of the U.S. economy and affects the daily lives of more Americans than any other part of the U.S. government,” he said. “I firmly believe that Dr. Price has the experience and qualifications necessary to effectively lead this large and diverse set of agencies, and many people share that view.”
Republicans are counting on Mr. Price, a 62-year-old surgeon from the Atlanta suburbs, to quarterback their efforts to replace the Affordable Care Act with a plan that uses fixed tax credits and market forces to entice consumers into health insurance rather than requiring Americans to get covered or pay a tax.
Within hours of taking office, Mr. Trump signed an order aimed at lifting regulatory burdens and fines imposed by the Affordable Care Act, signaling he is serous about using his authority to dismantle the law once his health team is in place.
Mr. Price said any GOP alternative will “not abandon” sick customers who were locked out of the market before the 2010 Affordable Care Act, though he offered few other details on a potential replacement, saying he is conferring with Mr. Trump and that legislative decisions will be up to Congress.
Democrats are worried that Mr. Trump will rush to dismantle Obamacare without an adequate safety net in place for 20 million-plus people covered under the law.
Among their chief concerns is whether Mr. Trump will convert Medicaid, the government insurance program for the poor, from an open-ended benefit into a fixed “block grant” to states, despite his campaign vow to leave entitlement programs alone.
Mr. Price championed such an overhaul as chairman of the House Budget Committee, though declined to stake out a firm stance before the committee.
“Are you in favor of block granting Medicaid?” Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, said.
“I’m in favor of making certain that Medicaid is a system that responds to patients, not the government,” Mr. Price said.
The Senate Health Committee held a courtesy hearing on Mr. Price last week, though Mr. Hatch’s committee is charged with actually voting on the nomination.
“We’ve always known where the votes are, the question is whether we’re going to get commitments on health issues that are in line with what the president said working families were gonna get,” Mr. Wyden said after the hearing. “And there was a big gap today between the pledges that were made in the campaign to working families and what we heard.”
Mr. Hatch, meanwhile, angrily chastised Democrats for largely defending the status quo, as Obamacare is battered by rising premiums and government insurance programs eat up taxpayer funds.
“If we keep going the way we’re going,” he said, “there won’t be any health care for anybody.”