President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of health and human services pushed Tuesday for changes to Medicaid, telling senators the program is in need of repair.
Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., testified before the Senate Finance Committee, where Democrats pressed him for details on Republicans’ plan to replace Obamacare. Their questions included whether that plan would roll back the health care law’s expansion of Medicaid, which made more Americans eligible.
Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia expanded eligibility for Medicaid, the federal health program for low-income Americans, under Obamacare.
The Georgia Republican offered few details on the replacement plan, but stressed that he and Trump believe the changes should be centered around patient care.
“What I believe in is a Medicaid system that is responsive to the patients, and that’s not the system we currently have,” Price said.
Trump has said he plans to reveal a health care proposal after the Senate confirms Price to head the Department of Health and Human Services, though details on the White House’s plan are sparse.
Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to Trump, told ABC News on Sunday that the president plans to turn Medicaid into a block grant program, under which states would receive a fixed amount of money from the federal government and decide how to use it.
Price, chairman of the House Budget Committee, previously has advocated reforming Medicaid, and his budget proposal for 2017 called for block-granting funds to the states.
But Price, an orthopedic surgeon, stopped short Tuesday of endorsing such a pathway for reform. Instead, he said the goal of any changes to Medicaid—and Obamacare—would be to give everyone the “opportunity to gain coverage” and improve Medicaid for those eligible.
“Any reform or improvement that I would envision for any portion of the Affordable Care Act would be one that would include an opportunity for individuals to gain coverage, the kind of coverage they want for high-quality health care,” he said.
Price, though, stressed that policymakers should be focused on more than the number of Americans who gain health coverage:
Just gaining coverage for individuals is an admirable goal, but it ought not be the only goal. We must have a goal in health care, especially to keep the patient at the center and realize what kind of care and coverage we’re providing for people on the ground. For people with real lives.
In response to questions from committee Democrats on the future of Medicaid, Price maintained that it’s a “vital program” in the health care system, but one with challenges.
Medicaid beneficiaries’ access to providers is limited, for example, because 1 in 3 available physicians choose not to see Medicaid patients, Price said. Studies suggest low reimbursement rates deter physicians from seeing Medicaid patients.
“That’s a system that isn’t working for those patients, and we ought to be honest about that, and look at that, and answer the question why, and then address that,” the Georgia Republican said.
Still, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., pressed Price on the impact that reforming Medicaid would have on those currently eligible, which Menendez said would turn Medicaid, originally an entitlement program for the poor, from a “right” to a “possibility.”
“No system that the president has supported or that I supported would leave anyone without the opportunity to gain coverage,” Price responded.
If confirmed, Price will take the helm of the Department of Health and Human Services as it implements a successor to Obamacare once Congress repeals the law and passes a replacement.
Republican lawmakers already have taken the first step in rolling back the health care law. They plan to discuss the specifics regarding its repeal and a replacement plan Thursday at a joint retreat of GOP members of the House and Senate.