Senate Democrats hammered Rep. Tom Price, President-elect Donald Trump's choice to head the U.S. Department ofHealth and Human Services, about his investments in healthcare stocks while serving on Congressional committees that they said made decisions benefitting those medical device and biotech companies.
The Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee members spoke and asked questions of Price for close to four hours. On Wednesday. On Jan. 24, Price will go before the Senate Finance Committee, which will make the decision whether to forward his nomination to the president.
Democratic senators Elizabeth Warren, Patty Murray, and Al Franken were among those who grilled Price about what he knew about his stock broker's investments into Zimmer Biomet, a medical device company, and Innate Immunotherapeutics, a company that creates drugs to fight cancers, infections and autoimmune diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis.
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Murray, who said she wanted a full investigation of Price's trading practices, said the nominee invested in the drug company while the 21st Century Cures Act was being negotiated.
Warren said that on March 17, Price purchased stock in Zimmer Biomet, a manufacturer of hips and knees. Six days later Price introduced a bill in the House to suspend regulations on hip and knee replacements, she said.
Franken said Price made a $50,000 to $100,000 profit on the stock purchase.
Price repeatedly said he was unaware of the stocks in which his broker was investing, and that numerous members of the committee likely held similar investments they probably knew nothing about.
"Everything we have done has been above-board, transparent, ethical and legal," Price said.
Democratic senator Christopher Murphy said Price invested as much as $90,000 in six drug companies that would be harmed by a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Innovation Center drug demonstration project that Price opposed.
Price said, "The fact of the matter, I didn't know those trades were being made."
The only reason Murphy knew of the investments is because Price disclosed his investments on an annual basis, he said.
To a question from democratic senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin on whether Price has received campaign contributions from biotech and pharma companies, Price said, "I assume so, most of us do."
Orin Hatch, R-Utah, said members had traded stocks while sitting on the committee.
Price, an orthopedic physician, has been vocal in his criticism of mandatory government measures for bundled payments, such as those for knees and hips.
Sen Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, asked him about the electronic health record and meaningful use, saying MD Anderson laid off 5 percent of its staff in an act directly attributed to a loss of productivity from EHR.
Price said EHRs are important from an innovation standpoint.
"We as a federal government have a role to play, and that's with regard to interoperability," he said.
But for many doctors, meaningful use was the last straw in the regulatory reporting burden, he said.
Price wants to see a new way forward for quality reporting, he said, one in which the metrics required correlate with the quality of care.
"We've turned physicians and other providers into data entry clerks," he said.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas questioned Price about healthcare regulatory agencies, that have mandated such rules as bundled payments.
Price said anything that gets in the way of patient and families, "We ought not go down that road."
"We've seen what's coming out of CMMI (CMS's Innovation Center) … It requires treatment for disease entities that may or may not be in the best interest of the patient….I reject (that Washington, DC) is where those decisions should be made."
Price made no commitments on a replacement plan to the Affordable Care Act should he become HHS secretary.
To questions on guaranteeing benefits in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, Price made no commitment but stressed the importance of having the opportunity and financial feasibility to gain access to health insurance.
Price talked about strengthening Medicare for future generations, and not pulling the rug out from anybody.
But mandatory government rules for reimbursement mean there's more people in a doctor's office working to fulfill the administrative burden, rather than on working with the patient, who should always be front and center.
"In the mid-90s, there were more people behind the door than in front of the door," Price said of the exam room. "It became clear to me the health system was losing its focus on number one priority, the patient."
Republicans such as Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, praised Price's qualifications.
"I believe you're an excellent nominee for this job," Alexander said, adding he hoped Price would be confirmed in February.