Trump health nominee says he does not back Medicare privatization

(Reuters) - President Donald Trump’s nominee to run the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told a congressional panel on Tuesday that he does not support the privatization of Medicare and defended his ethics record.

U.S. Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) testifies before a Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be Health and Human Services secretary on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 24, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Speaking before the Senate Committee on Finance, one of two committees that oversee the health department, Representative Tom Price said his position was consistent with that of Trump, who has stated he does not want to cut the federal health program for the elderly.

Price, a Georgia orthopedic surgeon, previously supported privatization of Medicare. But he told lawmakers his role as health secretary would be very different from his role as a congressman and that his job would be to execute the wishes of Congress.

“I would just convey to the Medicare population of this nation, they don’t have reason to be concerned,” he said. “We look forward to assisting them in getting the care and coverage that they need.”

Senator Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the committee, questioned Price about his stock trading while a lawmaker, including in health industry stocks that could be affected directly by legislation.

“It is hard to see this as anything but a conflict of interest and an abuse of position,” Wyden said.

Price defended the stock holdings, saying “everything that I did was ethical, above board, legal and transparent.”

Separately, Republican lawmakers began dismantling former President Barack Obama’s 2010 Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Two House of Representatives committees held hearings on Tuesday.

Others will follow with the goal of putting in place “thoughtful, step-by-step reforms that offer Americans more choices, greater access, and higher-quality care at lower costs,” the chairman of the Ways and Means committee, Kevin Brady, said in remarks to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Price sidestepped questions about the impact of an executive order Trump signed on his first day in office targeting Obamacare but said he is committed to carrying out “the law of the land.”

Democrats also grilled Price on his plans for the Medicaid health program covering poor Americans. A senior Trump adviser, Kellyanne Conway, said in an interview on NBC’s “Sunday Today” show that Trump’s plan to replace Obamacare will include fixed payments from the government to the states to care for Medicaid patients.

These payments, known as block grants, contrast with the current system in which states share the actual cost of Medicaid enrollees with the federal government. Conway said converting to a block grant system would ensure that people in charge of administering the program are “those who are closest to the people” who need care.

Price has long advocated block grants for Medicaid but declined on Tuesday to overtly re-state his position, saying only that he would work to make sure “people have better healthcare, not less healthcare.”

Tuesday’s hearing followed a similar hearing last week by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which also oversees the health department. Only the finance committee members will vote on the nomination.

Reporting by Toni Clarke and Susan Cornwell in Washington; additional reporting by Caroline Humer in New York; Editing by Tom Brown