Health and Science

Trump's health chief plays coy as senators push for answers on Trumpcare, payments to Obamacare insurers

Key Points
  • HHS Secretary Tom Price said he does not know what is in the draft of the Senate GOP bill that would replace Obamacare.
  • Democrats strongly criticized Republicans for writing that bill in secret.
  • Price would not say whether he still supports the House's own bill.
Tom Price, U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), speaks during a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, March 29, 2017.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday that even he does not know what is in the health-care bill that Republican senators are drafting in secret — and claimed he doesn't know the identities of the baker's dozen of GOP lawmakers who are writing that legislation.

Price also ducked questions on whether he agrees with President Donald Trump's reported characterization of the House's Obamacare replacement bill as being "mean," or whether he still enthusiastically supports the bill that he, Trump and Republican lawmakers joyfully celebrated the passage of in the White House's Rose Garden in May.

Price likewise played coy Thursday when Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., urged the Trump administration to commit to paying Obamacare insurers billions of dollars to reimburse them for key subsidies for low-income health plan customers through next year and possibly through 2019.

Uncertainty over those cost-sharing reimbursements has contributed to some insurers abandoning Obamacare markets next year, and to higher proposed prices for individual health plans in 2018.

Price said the budget proposed by the Trump administration calls for continuing the billions of dollars in CSR payments to insurers — and noted that the funding would continue until a lawsuit by House Republicans over the subsidies is resolved.

That caveat leaves open the door to the subsidies being ended abruptly.

Price was appearing before the Appropriations Committee to discuss HHS' proposed budget for the next fiscal year.

His testimony came as Republican Senate leaders continued their difficult push toward creating a bill that would repeal and replace major parts of Obamacare, and hold a vote on that legislation before the July 4 congressional recess.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Finance Committee, which oversees health-care policy, among other things, reportedly said Thursday, "join the crowd, I'm in the same category," when a journalist asked the Utah Republican what that bill contains.

"I'm not sure anybody knows the full details," Hatch said, according to Bloomberg. "We're working on it."

Democratic senators on the Appropriations Committee chafed at Price's refusal to give "yes" or "no" answers to their queries, as they used his appearance to criticize the drafting of an Obamacare replacement bill without their input, and for what they believe will be the bill's harmful effects on the affordability of health coverage for millions of Americans.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called the bill "the secret version of Trumpcare that Senate Republicans are rushing to jam through in a matter of days."

"Democrats haven't seen it," Murray said.

Murray noted that when the House's proposed Obamacare replacement bill passed last month, Price had called it "a victory for the American people," and participated in a Rose Garden gathering with Trump and GOP House members to boast of its passage. She also noted that Price had gone on talk shows afterward to laud the bill in glowing terms.

Since then, however, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the bill would lead to 23 million more uninsured Americans if it becomes law. Trump earlier this week during a meeting with GOP senators referred to the House bill as "mean" and a "son of a b----'" as he urged them to pass a more generous version of the bill.

Murray asked Price whether "you still stand by those comments" that he made praising the House's legislation.

"I disagree with the characterization," Price said.

Murray said she had been quoting Price's own words back to him, and pressed him to give a "yes" or "no" answer.

Price said, "It's not a yes or no answer."

Price said there is "a constellation of reforms that needs to be put in place" as Americans struggle with higher premium and deductibles in their individual health plans.

"It's clear to me that you are not going to stand by your comments," Murray shot back.

Murray went on to accuse the Trump administration of "sabotaging our health-care system as a tactic" to push for Obamacare replacement legislation.

"It's no secret that the administration's actions are the primary reasons that premiums are spiking or insurers are leaving the market," she said.

"I want to be very clear: you break it, you own it," Murray said.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., asked Price if he or anyone on his staff have "seen what the Senate Republicans are working on."

"I haven't seen any legislative language," Price said. "My staff has provided some technological assistance.

Durbin said, "You haven't seen it either? Well, we haven't seen it either, we're told we're going to vote on it in a matter of days."

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, asked Price whether Senate Republicans have asked him to weigh in on aspects of the bill being drafted.

"I've had conversations with members of the Senate about what kinds of things we believe need to be done," Price said.

But Price also told Schatz that "my knowledge about those conversations" that senators are having as they draft their bill "is what your knowledge is, what you read in the newspaper."

And when Schatz referred to the 13 GOP senators said to be involved in drafting it, Price said, "I couldn't tell you who the 13 people are."

"You couldn't?" Schatz said, sounding surprised.

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