Transition 2017: Hearings on Price for HHS Secretary conclude, with finance committee vote possible next week

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Senators question ACA replacement plan, biomedical investments, while groups opposing nominee also cite abortion, gay rights stances, membership in organization that has denied HIV causes AIDS

Senate Finance Committee members Tuesday followed last week’s HELP Committee hearing on Health and Human Services Secretary nominee Rep. Tom Price with a renewed focus on the Atlanta Congressman’s long-standing and vocal opposition to the Affordable Care Act, and on medical and pharmaceutical company investments they said raised both ethical questions, and concerns about his judgement in leading the Department that oversees U.S. biomedical research. The conclusion of the second several-hour hearing, during which support for the nominee appeared divided along party lines opens the way for a Finance Committee vote on whether to recommend that the Senate approve Rep. Price’s nomination as early as next week.

At the same time, Treatment Action Group joined other organizations and coalitions Tuesday opposed to Rep. Price’s nomination, releasing a statement saying his investments in, and votes in favor of the interests of companies developing biomedical products raise questions about his ability to make impartial decisions in HHS oversight of the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. (Other groups taking a stance against the nomination include the Human Rights Campaign, National Physicians Alliance, and groups of medical students and physicians opposed to the American Medical Association’s endorsement of the Representative and former physician). In addition, TAG, which tracks and advocates research, development and access to treatments for HIV and TB globally, joined other organizations in expressing concerns about his strongly voiced stances against gay rights and women’s reproductive health rights, as well as his membership in the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a group that has denied scientific proof that HIV causes AIDS. TAG’s statement also noted that while representing a district with markedly high rates of HIV and opioid addiction, the Congressman and former physician has worked to dismantle health and social service safety nets, with multiple votes against the ACA without a replacement.

While a search of Rep. Price’s Congressional web site news releases yields scores of statements sometimes on a weekly basis attacking the ACA as Obamacare dating back to the legislation’s “one year anniversary,” multiple commemorations of the anti-abortion-access “March for Life,” (as well as other statements in opposition to abortion access and to Planned Parenthood), statements calling for U.S. entry bans and quarantines of people potentially exposed to Ebola, a statement calling the Supreme Court decision validating same-sex marriage “not only a sad day for marriage, but a further judicial destruction of our entire system of checks and balances,” and a statement mourning the death of Phyllis Schlafly, saying the anti-gay and anti-women’s rights activist “will be sorely missed by all patriots,” it does not yield any mention of HIV or AIDS, or on the bipartisan President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief legislation.

On Tuesday, however, in response to questioning from Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) on whether HIV causes AIDS, Rep. Price responded, “The scientific evidence is clear — they are clinically related.” And asked by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) to discuss how the Trump Administration’s newly reinstated and widely expanded so-called “Mexico City” policy barring health providers supported with U.S. funding from providing abortion referrals, counseling or services would affect PEPFAR efforts and responses to  the Zika virus (which can be sexually transmitted and cause devastating birth defects to the children of women infected during pregnancy), Rep. Price said: “The Department is full of all sorts of heroes and talented individuals. My goal is to gather the best minds and talent and figure out the wisest policy this nation should have as it relates to infectious disease. Germs know no geographic boundaries.”

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