(Bloomberg) — Rep. Tom Price, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, faced tough questions from U.S. senators Wednesday on the ethics of his stock trading and his plans for repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.
In the first hearing on his nomination, Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Patty Murray slammed Price over his investments in medical stocks while handling health-related laws, with Murray asking for an independent investigation into the tradings. From the Republican camp, Price, an orthopedic surgeon from Georgia who’s been a strong opponent of ACA, mostly got praise for his qualifications for the job and questions about the ACA. He didn’t provide details on how the health care law would be replaced, saying that “nobody is interested in pulling the rug out from under anybody.”
“There’s been a lot of talk about individuals losing health coverage,” Price said. “That is not our goal, nor is it our desire, nor is it our plan.”
He repeatedly focused on the role of patients’ choice in picking their insurance.
“Choice is absolutely vital. The patients will select the kinds of coverage they want,” he said. “Health savings accounts and high-deductible coverage are things that make a whole lot of sense for many individuals.”
Price will be a key player in the GOP’s efforts to dismantle the ACA. Trump said last week he wants to propose a plan to end and replace the ACA as soon as Price is confirmed, although he gave no details about what the replacement would look like.
The committee before which Price was testifying Wednesday doesn’t vote on his nomination. The Senate Finance Committee, which will vote on whether to send the nomination to the full Senate for a vote, will hold a hearing on Price Jan. 24.
The most pressing questions about the timing of his stock purchases centered on Price’s 2015 investment in Innate Immunotherapeutics Ltd., an Australian company testing a drug that could be used to help treat multiple sclerosis. Unlike his other trades, which were handled by a financial broker, Price said he personally made the decision to invest in Innate.
Price said he learned of the drugmaker from Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican who sits on the board of the company, but wasn’t privy to non-public information before purchasing the stock. He said he paid market price for Innate shares in 2015, but may have paid a lower price for three additional purchases.
Price voted for a 2016 bill called the 21st Century Cures Act that would give the Food and Drug Administration $500 million to speed drug approvals. Several provisions of the law were being discussed in 2015 at the time he bought Innate. When Senator Murray whether it’s appropriate for a senior member of Congress actively involved in policy making to buy stocks in health companies that could benefit from new legislation, Price answered:
“Well, that’s not what happened. I had no access to non-public information.”
Before the hearing, Price’s investments in health care shares had raised increasing ethics concerns. Among the trades most criticized was Zimmer Biomet Holdings Inc., a medical-device company in Indiana. Legislation he introduced last year would have benefited companies that make hip and knee replacements.
On Tuesday, Trump’s transition team said Price’s financial adviser, Morgan Stanley, directed all stock trades in his account. Morgan Stanley purchased the Zimmer shares in March 2016, according to a fact sheet provided by the campaign. While Price introduced the legislation a few days after the purchase, he didn’t learn of the stock purchase until the following month, according to the fact sheet. In addition, Price began work on his legislation in 2015, the fact sheet shows.
Price didn’t say whether he would back a Trump-supported proposal to give the U.S. government the power to negotiate drug prices, amid questioning from Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont.
“You have my commitment to make certain drug pricing is reasonable,” Price said when pushed by Sanders.
Medicaid block grants
Trump recently told Ainsley Earhardt of Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends program that he’ll cover individuals who can afford it with private insurance. He said he aims to make Medicaid, the joint state-federal plan that covers the poor and nursing home care for the elderly who meet state eligibility standards, a block-grant program.
“Nobody is going to be dying on the streets with a President Trump,” the president-elect said, according to a transcript provided by Fox.
Price told senators he got into politics after noticing the health care system was no longer making patients the top priority.
“There were more individuals within our office who were dealing with paperwork, insurance filings, and government regulations than there were individuals actually seeing and treating patients,” he said in prepared remarks.
As chairman of the House of Representatives’ Budget Committee since 2015, Price has been a leader in efforts to fight the ACA. In May that year, he introduced a replacement proposal that focuses on tax credits, expanding health savings accounts and revising laws governing medical malpractice, although it hasn’t been embraced by Republican leaders.
The transition team also called Price “a champion of pro-life issues.” He is an abortion opponent and has voted for efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.
Senate Democrats had called for a delay of his confirmation hearings and a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of his trades in health care stocks while he was a congressman handling legislation that could have affected the companies.
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