HHS Secretary Price Trades Jabs With Democrats on Agency Budget

Cuts take affect in October

In back-to-back appearances on Capitol Hill, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Dr. Tom Price sparred with Democrats over the Trump administration’s budget cuts for his department and over coming troubles in the individual health insurance market created by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, according to a report from Kaiser Health News (KHN).

“President Trump’s budget does not confuse government spending with government success,” Price said, defending a spending plan that calls for substantial funding reductions to Medicaid, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and other HHS agencies.

The problem with many federal programs “is not that they are too expensive or too underfunded. The real problem is that they do not work—they fail the very people they are meant to help,” Price said in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee.

He cited Medicaid as an example where rising costs require reforms. The administration’s budget would reduce federal Medicaid funds to states by $610 billion over a decade. Under its proposal, states would gain latitude over how to spend those funds, which Price said would lead to innovations and efficiencies.

President Trump’s budget has come under heavy attack in Congress since its release last month and is expected to undergo much rewriting, according to the KHN article. The budget would take effect for the fiscal year starting October 1.

Democratic senators and representatives on the committees repeatedly challenged Price on his testimony and on the administration’s health care policies.

“It’s mean-spirited. It’s not good for America. We can do much better,” said Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia).

With insurers facing looming deadlines to decide whether to participate in the PPACA’s online marketplaces next year, lawmakers also pressed Price on whether the Trump administration will pay insurers approximately $7 billion in “cost-sharing subsidies” for 2018. The White House has sent mixed signals, but many insurers’ decisions about next year’s premiums and where they will offer health plans hinge on the verdict.

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) repeatedly asked Price whether he would commit to making subsidy payments, but Price refused to answer beyond reiterating that the HHS budget includes payments through 2018. Price said he could not elaborate because he is the defendant in a lawsuit regarding these subsidies—a still-pending case brought by the Republican-led House of Representatives during the Obama administration.

Democrats accused Price of doing little to stabilize the individual insurance marketplace as insurers have announced plans to withdraw. But Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) said the market was failing and it wasn’t Price’s fault.

“We are in the Obama car, and it’s like being in the same car as Thelma and Louise going into the canyon,” he said. “We need to get out of the car.”

Price was also asked about a draft rule from the HHS that would scale back the PPACA’s mandate requiring nearly all employers to offer health insurance covering birth control. The HHS proposal would allow more types of employers to claim moral or religious exemptions to the mandate.

“I think that for women who desire birth control, it should be available,” Price said.

Source: Kaiser Health News; June 9, 2017.