Trump Health Pick Defends Stocks, Says Americans Won’t Lose Insurance

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -
Health and Human Services Secretary-designate, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., pauses while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 18, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for health secretary defended his vast health-care stock holdings as being ethical and legal on Wednesday and said Americans who have gained coverage under Obamacare will not suddenly go without health care.

Representative Tom Price, who has come under fire for stock investments in health care companies made while he worked on laws that affected them, said he had broken no laws. “I had no knowledge of those purchases,” he said, explaining that specific investment decisions were made by his broker without his knowledge.

The Georgia orthopedic surgeon spoke while testifying at a U.S. Senate committee hearing on his proposed appointment by Trump to head the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs Medicare, Medicaid and the subsidized individual insurance program created by President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Price laid out a rough timeline for making changes to Obama’s national health care law, known as Obamacare, agreeing with some Republicans that the plan to replace the law will be unveiled in the next few months but implemented over several years.

Nobody is interested in “pulling the rug out on anybody” Price said.

He said an overhaul of the law will initially focus on individual health plans sold on online exchanges and the Medicaid program for the poor but would not tackle changes to the Medicare program for elderly Americans.

Trump has called for the immediate repeal of the law and the simultaneous replacement. Trump has said that he wants to keep some aspects of Obamacare, such as allowing young adults to be on their parents’ insurance, but that he wants plans that use health savings accounts. He also advocates for insurance to be sold across state lines.

Price said that with these new tools, and the rollout of new forms of high-deductible so-called catastrophic insurance, the government can expand health care coverage to more people. He also echoed Trump’s recent call for “health care for all,” saying that he wants more people to be covered after the ACA is repealed.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office on Tuesday said a repeal of Obamacare would increase the number of people without health insurance by 18 million in the first year and 32 million by the year 2026.

Price, who has been in politics for more than 20 years and is seen as being likely to be approved for the post by the Republican-controlled Senate, also said he followed the law on his stock trades.

“There isn’t a single bit of information out there that I didn’t reveal to the public,” he said.

The Wall Street Journal last month reported that Price had traded more than $300,000 worth of shares in health-related companies over the past four years while backing legislation that potentially could affect those companies’ stocks. He recently disclosed the holdings, from insurer Aetna Inc. to drugmakers like Pfizer Inc., as part of his confirmation process.

Price also said that he made the decision to buy stock in one company, Innate Immunotherapeutics, after hearing about the company from another congressman, Representative Chris Collins. He declined a Democrat’s suggestion that this was a “stock tip” and said everything he had done had been legal.

Price has been a leading critic of Obamacare, the outgoing president’s signature domestic policy achievement. In a 2011 speech to the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, Price said he was “for every single piece of legislation that gets the federal government out of your back pocket and out of your exam room.”

His proposed Obamacare alternative involves a universal tax credit that critics say would not cover premium costs and out-of-pocket costs of health insurance in much of the country.

Price was testifying before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, one of two that oversee the Department of Health and Human Services. The other is the Senate Committee on Finance, which has set a hearing with Price for Jan. 24.

Only members of the finance committee will vote on whether to send Price’s nomination to the Senate floor for review.