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Trump health policy remains unclear after HHS candidate's 2nd Senate review

A second round of public scrutiny on Jan. 24 of President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services shed little new light into the new administration's healthcare policy plans.

After nearly four hours of grilling by the Senate Finance Committee, it remained unclear on which policies HHS secretary candidate Rep. Tom Price may agree with Trump and on which ones the two men may differ.

Price, an orthopedic surgeon, appeared to disagree with Trump on the president's leanings toward the idea of a connection between vaccines and autism — a link the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said does not exist.

When asked point blank by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., whether vaccines cause autism, Price said the "science is that it does not."

When Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, asked whether Trump was nearly finished with constructing a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act — a scheme the president said he would disclose as soon as his HHS nominee was confirmed by the Senate — Price remarked "It is true that he said that, yes."

Price did not give any insight into the details of Trump's replacement plan or even if the HHS nominee had been involved in writing it.

"I have had conversations with the president about healthcare," Price told Brown.

Price declined to acknowledge his past support for turning Medicaid, which provides coverage to the poor, into a block-grant program, meaning states would be given a fixed lump sum of federal funding they could use as they see fit.

During an appearance on Jan. 22 on ABC's Sunday political program This Week, Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said the president's plan included turning Medicaid into a block-grant program — an idea opponents said could leave states short of cash and unable to cover all potential beneficiaries.

Price also was unclear on whether he would advocate for HHS to gain the authority to negotiate prices of drugs covered for seniors and the disabled under the Medicare Part D prescription medicine program — a pledge Trump made on the campaign trail.

"You're going to be the captain of the president's health team and you're going to have to persuade Republicans to change the law so the president can fulfill his pledge. Will you do that?" asked Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the Finance Committee's ranking member.

Right now, Price said, pharmacy benefit management companies do the negotiating with drug manufacturers and plans offered under Part D.

"I think it is important to have the conversation and look at whether or not there is a better way to do that. If there is, I'm open to it," he said.

The Finance panel's hearing followed the Jan. 18 examination of Price, a congressman from Georgia, by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, where the HHS candidate faced questions about whether his investments in medical product companies violated the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, which is aimed at preventing lawmakers and their staff members from engaging in insider trading.

Price's stock trading activity also took center stage at the Finance hearing, where Wyden demanded answers from the HHS nominee about his purchase of shares of Australian biotech company Innate Immunotherapeutics Ltd. while he was involved in promoting legislation that may have benefited the company.

"Set aside the legal issues, it is hard to see this as anything but a conflict of interest and an abuse of position," Wyden said.

He said Price initially had failed to report to the committee the accurate value of 400,000 Innate Immunotherapeutics shares he bought in 2016 through a private placement offering.

But Price argued that "The reality is that everything I did was ethical, above board, legal and transparent," and that the only reason "you know about these things is because we have made that information available to you."

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said Wyden and other Democrats were "trying to extrapolate some evil" to keep Price from becoming the HHS secretary.

After all, Isakson said, Wyden's colleagues had not condemned him for the holdings of his mutual fund, which included drugmakers like Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. — one of the companies that have been under fire for hiking the prices of its older medicines.

But Wyden pointed out that mutual funds are considered by the government's ethics office to be in a "completely different category" than personal stock trading.

The Senate Finance Committee has yet to schedule a vote on Price's nomination, which will later go to the full chamber for consideration.