CNN town hall: HHS Secretary Tom Price caught in a political storm

Posted at 9:55 PM, Mar 15, 2017

(CNN) -- Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price -- a former congressman and a longtime critic of Obamacare --- forcefully defended the House Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare on Wednesday night, even as the legislation continues to face fierce backlash and bleed support.

"We believe strongly, strongly, that the plan we put together is so much better than the one that's there now," Price said a special CNN town hall event moderated by CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Dana Bash.

A physician by training, Price is now responsible for selling the Republican Party's controversial plan to overhaul the Affordable Care Act to his former colleagues in Congress and the public. Throughout the hour-long town hall, he fielded emotionally charged questions on topics ranging from funding for Planned Parenthood to whether the new plan would allow parents to choose whether they vaccinate their children and how patients would pay for addiction treatment.

One statement that Price had to stand by was his recent promise that nobody will be "financially worse off" under the Republican proposal. After an audience member named Teresa Caliari expressed concern that older Americans would see their premiums hiked under the GOP plan, Price was asked whether he could ensure that Caliari wouldn't be hurt financially.

He demurred, saying simply: "I don't believe you'll be worse off from a health care standpoint."

In recent days, GOP congressional leaders and the White House have furiously tried to assuage a range of concerns voiced by rank-and-file Republicans to ensure that they have the 216 votes needed for the bill to pass in the House.

Conservative Republicans, in particular, have been outspoken in their criticism. Some have asked House Speaker Paul Ryan to vote on a "clean repeal" Obamacare bill first -- and then turn to the task of replacing the law through separate legislation.

Price, however, knocked that suggestion down on Wednesday, saying that would pull the rug out from under too many Americans. "We could just be repealing it. But the fact of the matter is, that would leave many Americans behind," he said.

On whether the GOP bill would be approved in the House despite the claim from House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows Wednesday night that there were enough votes to tank it, Price said Republicans would pass the bill by trying to "listen to the principles that the American people have told us are dear to them on health care."

Also complicating matters for supporters of the House Republican plan is a new analysis from the Congressional Budget Office this week that predicted that the House GOP bill to repeal Obamacare would result in some 24 million more people being uninsured by 2026 than under the current system.

Price -- like he has done repeatedly as have others in the administration -- downplayed the CBO's findings.

"They do a pretty good job with numbers -- coverage is not their strong suit," Price said. He also stressed that the CBO only took into account the House GOP bill while ignoring other steps Republicans plan to take through administrative and legislative actions.

"What the CBO looked at was just one-third of the plan," he said.

The CBO report also said the proposal would cut the federal deficit and average premiums would drop after a few years, but highlighted that some of the most vulnerable demographic groups including the elderly and low-income people would face steep premium hikes.

Price has been a key player in GOP leadership's efforts to sell their House health care bill to skeptical members. Having authored a repeal and replace bill when he was in the House, the HHS secretary has been making the rounds on Capitol Hill in recent weeks. Speaking with Republican lawmakers in both chambers, Price has sought to assuage widespread concerns about the changes to the health care system that GOP leaders are pursuing.

But that task has only grown more difficult in the aftermath of the CBO report. Moderate Republicans have grown even more wary of supporting a House bill that would lead to millions losing coverage -- particularly as it appears to have no chance of getting through the Senate.

Another sticking point is what will happen to Medicaid. Thirty-one states opted to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, and many Republican governors and senators hailing from those states oppose changes that would weaken the program.

In an emotional question to start the town hall, a man who said Medicaid saved his life and kept him from financial bankruptcy asked Price why he supported a plan that would sunset the Medicaid expansion in 2020 given that so many -- like himself -- had found care on it.

Price said it was wonderful the man had received the care he had, but "that's not necessarily true for everybody." Price argued that the program was "having extreme difficulty" providing care and that one out of every three physicians won't see Medicaid patients.

Price also insisted that giving individual states more freedom would help "save money."

"(Are you) going to treat healthy kids who need quality health care the same way you're going to treat a disabled individual or an older individual?" Price asked.

Wednesday's CNN town hall highlighted a full range of concerns and questions that patients have about how the new GOP bill may affect their own coverage.

John Brogan, a former Marine, recovering addict and now an addiction recovery specialist, specifically asked Price how he would fix the opiate epidemic.

While Price assured Brogan that the epidemic was a "high priority," Bash followed up to point out that the House repeal and replace plan would not require Medicaid to cover opiate addiction treatment.

Price argued that the treatment didn't necessarily need to come through Medicaid and that his goal would be to give states more flexibility to fix the problem.

Another emotional question for Price came from a woman named Katie Needle, who said she would be "devastated" if Planned Parenthood were defunded. Needle wanted to know how low-income women could continue receiving health care services if the organization they depend on is defunded through the Republican legislation.

Price responded that the bill has tried to address widespread concerns about federal tax dollars being used to perform abortion services. He also promised that the GOP legislation would "increase money for women's health services."

One provision in the GOP bill that has drawn fierce scorn would allow health care company executives who make more than half a million dollars a year to get a tax break. Asked about this by Bash, at first Price questioned whether that was actually in the bill. When Bash doubled down, Price argued it was just undoing a provision in Obamacare that unfairly targeted health care executives.

"I think the previous administration singled out health care executives," Price said.

"That doesn't sound like America to me," he said, adding that individuals in one sector of the economy shouldn't be treated differently than another sector.


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