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Senate focuses on Price’s ACA plans in confirmation debate

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(Bloomberg) — The U.S. Senate opened debate on confirming Republican congressman Tom Price as secretary of Health and Human Services, with the Democrats focusing their opposition Wednesday evening on the nominee’s plan to overhaul the Affordable Care Act as well as on the ethics of his past stock trading.

Price is an orthopedic surgeon from Georgia who was first elected to the U.S. House in 2004. As President Donald Trump’s HHS secretary, he’d be charged with coordinating Republican efforts to repeal and replace the ACA. He would also be in charge of programs such as the Medicare Advantage program, the Medicare Part D prescription drug plan program, and the Medicaid nursing home benefits program.

Related: 4 things for agents to know about HHS pick Tom Price

The term ACA is sometimes used as a synonym for “Obamacare.” Sometimes, “Obamacare” appears to refer only to the ACA rules and programs affecting the commercial health insurance market. The players rarely  discuss how they are using the terms.

Price proposed a full ACA replacement plan in 2015 that featured tax credits to help people buy insurance on the private market, the use of health savings accounts, and giving states federal funds to create high-risk pools to cover the very sick and those with pre-existing conditions.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, described Price’s plan in opening remarks of Wednesday evening’s debate as “repeal and run.” Though Republicans may not adopt Price’s 2015 plan in its entirety, he will have enormous influence over whatever plan is passed, Wyden said.

“Make no mistake about it. If confirmed, Congressman Price will be the captain of the Trump administration’s health team,” Wyden said. “His proposals matter.”

Health care stocks

Wyden, the sole speaker on Wednesday evening, also raised concerns about Price’s past stock trading. Democrats have criticized Price for purchasing stock in health care companies while helping develop or voting on legislation that could have benefited those investments. Price has said most of the trades were made independently by his financial adviser.

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Price also has come under fire for investing in Innate Immunotherapeutics Ltd., a decision that he said he made personally after learning about the Australian biotechnology firm from fellow Republican Rep. Chris Collins, who sits on the company’s board. Price received a discount on the stock in a special offering of the shares, though he’s said he was unaware of that at the time of the purchase.

Republicans have stood behind the nominee, even as Democrats have requested more information and called for the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate the stock purchases.

“I think the Finance Committee regrettably has an ethical double standard now,” Wyden said, referring to President Barack Obama’s nominee for HHS secretary in 2009, former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who withdrew his name under pressure from Republicans on the committee over his belated payment of some taxes. “Now when a glaring issue comes up that undeniably needs investigation, they are moving towards confirmation. I think this is sending a dangerous message to nominees in the future.”

Republicans hold a 51-seat majority in the Senate after Wednesday’s confirmation of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, meaning that Democrats can’t block Price’s confirmation if GOP senators vote along party lines. The Senate adjourned after Wyden’s remarks until Thursday at 10 a.m., when debate on Price will resume.

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