Rep. Tom Price, R-Georgia, Donald Trump's pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, told senators in a confirmation hearing today that the incoming Trump administration aims to prevent Americans from losing their health care in a transition from the current system to any GOP replacement, as Democrats pressed him on possible changes and a series of controversial stock trades.
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"There has been a lot of talk about individuals losing health coverage and that is not our goal nor our desire nor our plan," Price said.
"Nobody is interested in pulling the rug out from under anybody," he said of Republicans seeking to repeal and replace the health care law.
Price was questioned sharply by Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee concerned about a series of health-related stock trades while working on health legislation in Congress. He denied any impropriety.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wisconsin, the top Democrat on the panel, pressed Price on his purchasing of shares of a small Australian drug company -- whose largest shareholder is fellow Rep. Chris Collins, R-New York -- as Congress was putting together a major health bill that would help the FDA approve drugs more quickly.
Murray claimed Price told her in their private meeting that he purchased the stock after talking about it with Collins.
"Is that not a stock tip?" she asked.
"I had no access to nonpublic information," he insisted, pushing back against accusations that he may have violated the STOCK Act.
Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-New York, an author of that bill to prevent members of Congress from trading on information gleaned through the legislative process, has asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate Price's trading activity.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, questioned Price on a March 2016 purchase and sale of thousands of dollars of stock in a hip replacement manufacturing company as he introduced legislation that could have helped that company.
"The stock was bought by a broker. I wasn’t making those decisions,” Price said, pointing out that the Office of Government Ethics has approved his plan to divest himself of all health-related stock holdings if he is confirmed as HHS secretary.
The Georgia Republican, who put forward a conservative alternative to Obamacare as a House member, promised to work with Congress to make sure all Americans have "access to the highest quality care and coverage possible," splitting from Trump's recent promise to The Washington Post that there will be "insurance for everybody."
Asked if he would support lifting the prohibition on the government negotiating drug prices with pharmaceutical companies for Medicare -- an idea he opposed as a congressman that Trump has repeatedly endorsed -- Price said he would be "carrying out" Trump's wishes at the Department of Health and Human Services, but did not give a yes or no answer, as requested by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin.
Democrats expressed alarm over potential changes to the current health care system.
"I am very frightened about what you are going to do and so are millions of Americans," said Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota.
Price touched on his experience as a doctor-turned-state legislator, and how that shaped his positions on health care, which was well-received by supportive Republicans on the panel.
"You're clearly one of the premier people in all of Congress who understands health care," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Democrats accused Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, of limiting their questions.
"The Benghazi hearing was 11 hours. That's all I'm saying," Franken said.
Price is set to appear before the Senate Finance Committee for another confirmation hearing next week. That panel will formally vote on his nomination.