HHS Secretary Tom Price Responds to AHCA Questions and Concerns During Town Hall

HHS Secretary Tom Price, MD, continued to downplay the Congressional Budget Office’s report on the GOP healthcare bill, promoted how the plan gives Americans more choice, and clarified an earlier statement made about the financial health of patients during a CNN town hall moderated by Wolf Blitzer and Dana Bash.

HHS Secretary Tom Price, MD, continued to downplay the Congressional Budget Office (CBO)’s report on the GOP healthcare bill, promoted how the plan gives Americans more choice, and clarified an earlier statement made about the financial health of patients during a CNN town hall moderated by Wolf Blitzer and Dana Bash.

Having already cleared the Ways and Means and the Energy and Commerce committees on party-line votes, on Thursday morning, the day after the town hall, the House Budget Committee approved the bill. Nevertheless, 3 Republicans defected and voted against it. The representatives were all members of the House Freedom Caucus, which has been calling it "Obamacare lite." The bill will now head to the House Rules Committee.

During the town hall, Price promoted the CBO’s estimate that the American Health Care Act (AHCA) would reduce the budget deficit, but added that coverage estimates are not the CBO’s “strong suit” while he addressed the estimate that 24 million people could lose coverage by 2026.

“What the CBO looked at was just one-third of the plan,” he added. Republicans have said that AHCA is just part 1 of the GOP’s plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, with parts 2 and 3 coming later. These parts are not written yet.

A physician in the audience asked Price, who was a practicing orthopedist before becoming a politician, if lawmakers truly understand how the bill affects patients and where the money will come from to keep helping patients—especially those on Medicaid—get the care they need.

Price denied that the way to measure the success of Medicaid is by how much money goes into it. Success, he said, is measured by whether or not beneficiaries are taken care of and there are currently many areas where patients are not receiving the care they need.

“The fact of the matter is that we believe there is a better way to provide the kind of care and services for Medicaid patients,” Price said, and that way is putting power in the hands of the states and taking it away from Washington, DC.

States should have more power when it comes to Medicaid decisions because the program covers 4 different groups—elderly, disabled, mostly healthy moms, and kids—and states know their makeup of Medicaid better than the federal government, and being told to treat each of those groups the same “doesn’t make sense,” Price said.

“We ought to allow the states to design a program that cares for those individuals in a way that’s most responsive to them,” he said. “When you do that you’re actually able to save money. That’s the good news.”

Moving away from the ACA, which treats everyone the same, to a plan that treats everyone uniquely, was a common theme in Price’s answers. He said the same thing to a self-employed individual concerned about her $10,000 deductible and a plan with pediatric dental coverage despite the fact that she had no kids.

One New York resident, Katie Needle, who is on Medicaid and relies on Planned Parenthood, told Price she would be devastated if the organization was defunded. She pointed to what has been seen in Texas when the state reduced access to Planned Parenthood.

“More women’s health centers didn’t just magically appear because Planned Parenthood was defunded,” Needle said. “That just doesn’t happen.”

However, Price responded that the bill does increase money for women’s health services and that more services would be provided through community health centers. He stated multiple times that Americans have said they don’t want tax dollars being used to fund abortions and that Republicans are listening to what the people have told them.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, Planned Parenthood responded to Price’s assertions, telling people that federal dollars do not fund abortions since the organization is reimbursed after services are rendered.

.@SecPriceMD repeats myth that $$ is fungible. Planned Parenthood doesn't receive a big check, but is reimbursed for services. #CNNTownhall pic.twitter.com/d1PkrqWSf6

— Planned Parenthood (@PPact) March 16, 2017

During the town hall, Price also denied that the GOP plan is a new entitlement program because people still mostly get their insurance through the employer or Medicare and Medicaid and that the small-group market only covers 18 million people. He also denied that the 30% surcharge insurers can charge is another form of a mandate because the “mandate dictates what you buy” while the surcharge “encourages people to maintain coverage.”

Finally, another speaker, a retired public school teacher, voiced concerns about findings that AHCA would be more expensive for older Americans because insurers can charge them more. Price responded that Republicans justify this provision because insurers are “leaving the ACA in droves.”

Insurers have made it clear, he said, that unless Republicans made changes to stabilize the market and price the risk of the individual, they would not be able to stay in the market at all.

“We believe strongly that the plan that we put forward is so much better than the one that is there now,” Price said. “We believe, however, that, as you say, as individuals age, their insurance costs more. Which is why we provide a larger credit as individuals get older so they can purchase the kind of coverage they want.”

Kaiser Family Foundation has crunched the numbers and found that even though older Americans will receive larger tax credits than younger individuals, those tax credits will still be less than the subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

Price also addressed a question about an earlier statement he had made that “no one will be worse off financially” under AHCA and clarified what he meant.

“I don’t believe that you will be worse of from a healthcare standpoint, because that’s the goal that we have and that’s the plan that we designed,” he said.