President-elect Donald Trump's choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services defended stock transactions he made as a member of Congress as "above board," while vowing he would not pull the rug from under any American with health care as result of replacing the Affordable Care Act.
Rep. Tom Price, a Republican from Georgia, faced the first of two hearings he'll have as the nominee for HHS secretary. Wednesday's was before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. It will not vote on Price's nomination; that's up to the Senate Finance Committee.
But HELP committee members still asked tough questions of the nominee, focusing on Price and the incoming Trump administration's plans to replace the ACA and on Price's stock trades.
Price acknowledged purchasing shares in an Australian firm, Innate Immunotherapeutics Inc, which makes experimental drugs, after learning about the company from a fellow GOP member of Congress, Chris Collins of New York. Collins, a member of the Trump transition team, is the company's largest shareholder. Price told senators he studied the company and then bought his shares last year in a private offering.
Price, who was a member of the House Ways and Means Committee at the time, was involved in drafting the 21st Century Cures Act, a provision of which would speed approval of drugs by the FDA.
Democratic Sen. Al Franken said that over the past four years, Price traded over $300,000 in health-related stocks, "while at the same time sponsoring, advocating legislation that could affect the performance of those stocks."
But Price denied profiting from inside information, or benefiting from legislation he helped author. "Everything that we have done," Price said, "has been above board, transparent and legal."
Republicans on the committee noted that other senators have invested in health stocks. Sen. Orrin Hatch said he resented the line of questioning, calling it "hypocritical," and Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas said Democrats were engaged in "anger management."
The other major line of questioning was over efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Senators from both parties questioned him on the incoming administration's plans. The president-elect has vowed that he would provide "insurance for everybody," but Price was less sweeping, repeatedly saying that providing access to coverage was his goal. "Nobody's interested in pulling the rug out from under anybody," Price said. But he offered few details about what the incoming administration will propose.
Asked by Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders whether he agreed that health care was a right, Price answered, "We are a compassionate society."
Sanders sharply disagreed. "No, we're not," he said, noting child poverty rates, and how many seniors "have nothing set aside for retirement."
And Sanders questioned whether Price's commitment to providing access to health care was sufficient. "I have access to buying a $10 million home," Sanders said. "I don't have the money to do that."
Price also deferred when asked if he would commit not to cut funding for Medicare and Medicaid, as Trump has. He said the amount of money in the programs was "the wrong metric" to use for judging the programs. "What we ought to do," Price said, "is put forward the resources in order to take care of the patient."
There was a lighter moment. Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado said he had asked Price, an orthopedic surgeon, to take a look at a balky knee during a meeting the senator had with the nominee. "I've never shown my knee to any nominee before." Price asked if Bennet had gotten an MRI yet. "It's today," Bennet said.
Price, 62, faces his second round of questioning from the Senate Finance Committee next week.