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News April 2017

Washington Watch

New Health and Human Services Secretary May Have Profound Impact on Senior Health Issues

By Alan M. Schlein

Over a long career in medicine and politics, Price holds deeply held beliefs and now leads a department whose mission he has consistently criticized. He will be the Trump administration’s policy leader on repealing Obamacare, and proposed changes to Medicare and Medicaid as well as other policies that will affect seniors. So who is this man and what will he likely do in his new role?

While most of the attention of Congressional Republicans and the Trump administration is focused on moving quickly to repeal and replace President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA), the U.S. Senate recently confirmed Tom Price, President Donald Trump’s selection as Secretary of the Health and Human Services Department (HHS).

Over a long career in medicine and politics, Price holds deeply held beliefs and now leads a department whose mission he has consistently criticized. He will be the Trump administration’s policy leader on repealing Obamacare, and proposed changes to Medicare and Medicaid as well as other policies that will affect seniors. So who is this man and what will he likely do in his new role?

 

Who Is Tom Price? What Changes Can We Expect Him to Make?

Since before it became law in March of 2010, Price has been a fierce critic of the ACA. He has also long advocated a sweeping overhauling of the nation’s entitlement programs. He is expected to seriously shake things up at HHS as he tried to do for more than a decade on Capitol Hill.

Also joining Price at HHS, will be Seema Verma, a health care consultant, who was the architect of Medicaid changes in Vice President Mike Pence’s home state of Indiana. She will run a critical section of HHS – the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which controls policy issues and rules for both Medicaid and Medicare.

Price, 62, is a third-generation doctor from the wealthy suburbs north of Atlanta, Ga. He was chairman of the House Budget Committee and was an early supporter of candidate Donald Trump. In addition to running the federal government’s health care agency, Price will be the person most responsible for dismantling the ACA.

In Congress he played a key role in drafting several bills to replace the law. House lawmakers voted 60 times to eliminate all or part of the ACA but never had a chance to get it done while President Obama was in the White House. Now, lawmakers are set on repealing the legislation, but finding out how difficult it is to figure out what to replace it with and how to get the votes needed to make that happen in both the House and Senate.

"It's an unbelievably complex subject – nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated," President Trump proclaimed recently. While that may have been news to the president, Price, in 2010 warned that the bill “will have a disastrous effect on our nation’s healthcare system.”

Price often says that Democrats believe the government ought to be in control of health care, but he believes “that patients and doctors should be in control” of health care.

For many years, Price has been an active participant in the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), a controversial group that holds positions in sharp contrast with some basics of federal health policy. The group opposes Medicare and offers doctor’s extensive training on how they can opt out of the program, according to the Washington Post. The group also opposes mandatory vaccination as “equivalent to human experimentation” a stance contrary to requirements in every state and recommendations of many major medical organizations and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which will ironically now report to Price.

While Price has long been explicit about his views, it is less clear how the gigantic Department of Health and Human Services will change with his approval to head the agency. HHS has a $1 trillion budget. Its Medicare and Medicaid programs affect more than 100 million Americans, young and old. It regulates the nation’s food and drugs. Through the CDC, it runs public health programs that reach into every state and around the world. It also coordinates biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health.

Price moved to Atlanta from Michigan for a medical residency at Emory School of Medicine and later set up what became a large orthopedic surgery practice, where he worked for 20 years before getting into politics in 1996. But even before that, as a member of AAPS, he was active in the group’s successful 1993 lawsuit against then-first lady Hillary Clinton over closed meetings of the Bill Clinton White House’s task force to draft a health care overhaul plan. During his eight years as a state lawmaker, he fought to limit doctors’ exposure to malpractice lawsuits.

In 2003, when the legislature’s two chambers passed differing tort-policy bills, Price objected to the absence of a cap to restrict jury awards for pain and suffering in malpractice cases to $250,000. According to media reports at the time, Price’s insistence on those limits during a conference committee was one reason neither bill became law. But Price certainly has endeared himself to his medical colleagues, and was rewarded by the American Medical Association in 2001 as one of nine people to receive its highest award for public officials.

His nomination was almost torpedoed by a controversy over his stock purchases. Since 2012, Price has bought and sold stock in about 40 health care, pharmaceutical and biomedical companies, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation, at the same time as sitting on congressional committees that shape health care policy. Price advanced legislation that benefitted about six of those companies in the last year, the LA Times reported.

 

[Contributing to this story were the Washington Post, Politico, CNN/MONEY, Kaiser Health News and National Public Radio.]

Alan Schlein runs DeadlineOnline.com, an internet training and consulting firm. He is the author of the bestselling “Find It Online” books.

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