Rep. Tom Price on Jan. 18 confronted questions on Capitol Hill about his stock trades in medical product companies, the new administration's plans for replacing the Affordable Care Act and the future of Medicare and Medicaid at a hearing on his nomination to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.
The four-hour session, convened by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, was the first step toward Price's confirmation as President-elect Donald Trump's HHS secretary.
Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking member on the HELP, was among the lawmakers who raised concerns that Price may have violated the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, which is aimed at preventing lawmakers and their staff members from engaging in insider trading.
Murray wasted no time in asking whether it was appropriate for Price, who is the former House Budget Committee chairman, to be involved in purchases of stocks in companies that could benefit from legislation the lawmaker had pushed to get enacted, like the 21st Century Cures Act.
Price acknowledged he bought stock in the biotech firm Innate Immunotherapeutics, but insisted he had "no access to non-public information" ahead of that transaction.
Murray, however, called Price's trading activity "inappropriate," and said lawmakers needed more answers.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., also pressed Price about his investment in device maker Zimmer Biomet Holdings Inc. and legislation he introduced shortly thereafter, known as the HIP Act, which could have benefited the company since the bill was aimed at removing certain government regulations on medical devices.
Price said the Zimmer Biomet stock was purchased on his behalf by a broker and he had no decision in the matter.
"Everything that we have done has been above board, transparent, ethical and legal," Price told the HELP Committee.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, came to Price's defense by pointing out that other members of Congress, including those on the HELP Committee, had invested in healthcare stock, which is permitted under the law as long as those transactions are reported.
The line of questioning about Price's stock trades was "nothing more than a hypocritical attack on your good character," Hatch said.
Warren was joined by Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in quizzing Price on whether he was on board with Trump's campaign pledge to negotiate prices for drugs covered under the Medicare Part D prescription medicine program.
"We are paying, by far, the highest prices," Sanders said. He noted that many other industrialized nations negotiate with manufacturers on drug prices.
"You might want to print out President-elect Trump's statement 'I am not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid' and post that above your desk in your new office because Americans will be watching to see if you follow through on that promise," Warren said.
Price said he considered the drug pricing issue a great concern for the U.S. and said he would work with lawmakers to ensure costs were reasonable, although he did not commit to Medicare Part D price negotiations.
The HHS nominee was also asked about Trump's plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, including from Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Republican leader of the HELP Committee.
Alexander noted that Trump had said he wants to do the repeal and replace simultaneously, while House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said he wants the legislative action to be completed "concurrently." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that lawmakers need to do it promptly and in manageable pieces, the HELP chief noted.
Alexander said the ACA should be repealed "only when there are concrete, practical reforms in place that give Americans access to truly affordable healthcare."
"The American people deserve healthcare reform that's done in the right way, for the right reasons, in the right amount of time. It's not about developing a quick fix. It's about working toward long-term solutions that work for everyone," he said.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said lawmakers were frustrated in "trying to divine the nature" of what the new administration has in mind, given Trump said his plan would provide "insurance for everybody," without providing details about how he plans to carry that out.
"It seems you and the president-elect want to do everything the Affordable Care Act does, but do it in a different way," Murphy told Price.
The questioning Price faced was the "most extensive" of any HHS secretary nominee since 1993, Alexander said.
But for Price, it essentially was a dry run ahead of what is expected to be an even longer day on Jan. 24 at the Senate Finance Committee, which holds the jurisdiction to vote on the confirmation for the HHS secretary.
Most cabinet-level nominees generally undergo only one hearing, but because the HELP Committee is involved in legislating for various HHS agencies, like the FDA and the National Institutes of Health, the panel is given an opportunity to question any HHS secretary nominees.