While President Donald Trump insisted Congress repeal Obamacare within his first 100 days, the legislation was rushed, according to his Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Tom Price, and that’s why the Republicans failed.
But the recent setback will not deter the Trump administration, he said during an interview at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Tuesday with CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
Price runs a department with a budget of more than $1 trillion dollars and more than 80,000 employees who do work that he said touches on “the lives of every single American.” The orthopedic surgeon — the third doctor to hold the secretary position — said he was visiting Georgia on Tuesday and Wednesday to meet leaders at the CDC. He also gave a speech Wednesday about the country’s growing opioid epidemic at the National RX Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit.
“Recovery is possible for every single individual,” Price said in addressing the summit attendees. “America is not giving up on this fight. Surrender simply is not an option. The stakes are too high and the value of every life is too precious.”
Price is part of the executive opioid commission announced by President Trump last month. When asked about what was at the root of the crisis, Price pointed to a sense of despair in individuals and lack of connection to community. “It’s a struggle now that is being met with these powerful, powerful agents that are destroying lives, destroying communities, all over, all across the land,” Price told Gupta in a follow up interview Wednesday.
Before becoming secretary, Price represented Georgia’s 6th district in Congress and he happened to be visiting on the day his seat was up for grabs in what was seen as a litmus test on the Trump presidency. Tuesday’s unexpectedly close election unfolded in a district that has elected a Republican since 1979, including Newt Gingrich.
This week, it gave the most votes to a Democrat, newcomer John Ossoff, whose lawn signs urge people to “Vote your Ossoff.” He’ll be in a runoff in June against Republican Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, who got the second highest number of votes.
Asked about the election, Price declined to weigh in saying that he was “told by the legal beagles at the Department of Health and Human Services” that he has to “take that political hat off and put it in the corner” so that’s what he says he’s done.
Whomever gets elected to Price’s old seat will be one of the many leaders Price will have to court if he is going to successfully transform the American health care system he has spent a political career railing against, one he has characterized as “failing.”
From doctor to politician
Price’s first public complaints in the 1990s came long before he was elected. He served on the Georgia State Medical Association, a group that advocates for medical professionals. Representing the association, he visited Rotary clubs and church groups all around Georgia talking about how the Bill Clinton administration had “started down a path that I felt, along with many others, was not the right path to head.”
Price turned that message into a political career. He served four terms in the Georgia state Senate. There, he became the first Republican Majority Leader in the state’s history, bringing what his hometown paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, called a “Newt Gingrich-style sense of Republican partisanship” to the state House.
He brought in tort reform that placed new limits on medical malpractice complaints, voted consistently against access to abortion, and repeatedly demonstrated his conservative values beyond medicine. He voted for a constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage in 2006 and sponsored a bill to create a Confederate history month that didn’t mention slavery. He voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Georgia flag, then voted against eliminating the remaining Confederate symbol from the flag, which Democrats questioned him about in his contentious confirmation hearing in January. (At the hearing, Price said the move “addressed all the concerns of the state and was adopted and supported by the state.”)
When Rep. Johnny Isakson decided to run for the Senate, vacating his 6th district seat, Price took his conservative politics and passion for reforming health care to the national stage, getting elected in 2005. In Congress, he continued to get a 100% rating from the National Right to Life Committee and a 0% rating from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, voting against federal coverage for abortion and against expanding research on embryonic stem cell lines.
He also introduced a comprehensive health care bill of his own, the Empowering Patients First Act of 2015, that expanded health savings accounts. It gave states grants to create pools of high-risk patients, rather than have expensive patients deemed “high risk” by insurance companies in the general insurance population. The legislation never made it into law. Price said this week he still likes the idea of high-risk pools.
Research shows, though, they are limited in their ability to help give “insurance for everybody,” as Trump said he wanted to do. A study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found prior to Obamacare, the states with high-risk pools offered coverage that was expensive, and only a small fraction of the people who needed the coverage actually got it.
Price told Gupta that while they did not work “terribly well” in the past, it’s because they weren’t funded to the “degree they should be” and the pools weren’t big enough to be cost effective. Going forward, the administration’s plan would need to address this issue, he said.
A third-generation doctor, Price said he will work to transform the health care system to make it more “patient centered.” The 62-year-old said he knows this kind of care is possible, since he witnessed those relationships first hand when he was a little boy, making housecalls with his grandfather.
“The door flung open and they said, ‘Dr. Price.’ and gave him a big hug,” Price remembered “And to me that’s what the doctor-patient relationship was all about.”
In contrast, at Resurgens Orthopaedics, which Price helped build into a nationwide practice, he said the system prevented those kinds of relationships.
“I remember, almost to the day, the moment in my medical practice when I was back in my office working on some paperwork and I went out to see a patient, and I crossed, I went through that door, you know the door between the clinical side where you see patients and the back-office area, and it hit me that there were more people behind that door working on all the clerical stuff. Working, fighting with insurance companies, fighting with the government, fighting with this supplier, that supplier, to get the services and the apparatus needed to care for those people,” Price said.
“I said to myself then, at that very moment, ‘There’s something wrong with this picture.’ When we have more people in the system who aren’t providing clinical care, who aren’t hands-on taking care of patients or having a responsibility to care for patients, then that’s a system that again, may be working for other folks, but it’s not working for the patients.”
Moving on after failure
The most recent Republican attempt to fix the healthcare system failed, Price said, because of the “compressed timeline for the sale of the bill.” While his boss said, “nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” Price seems to have understood and told Gupta that “the different systems that we have, don’t make a whole lot of sense.”
He vowed the administration will “keep our eye on the ball and make certain that we move in the direction of a system that is much more responsive to patients, again, those end users, the people and the patients across this land who need to be paid attention to,” Price said.
Price suggested one way to fix the system will be to make sure the right resources go to the right initiatives.
He wants to cut redundancy and waste. And while he runs the federal agency that operates 11 divisions including the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health, he thinks the states, rather than the federal government should get more power over your healthcare.
“States are much more flexible, much more nimble to be able to create and modify a system that would work best for their constituents,” he said.
States may have to pick up the slack since Trump’s initial budget plan slashes billions from Price’s departments, which have already seen shrinking budgets for years. For instance, a report from Trust for America’s Health found that the CDC’s core budget has decreased by more than $580 million since 2010. Still as the CDC budget fell, state public health spending remained relatively flat.
Money, though, is not the answer, Price repeatedly told Gupta. “For us to say,’OK, let’s just throw more money at that system. Let’s see if more money helps that out’ is the wrong way,” Price said.
When pressed to give an example of a state that has improved healthcare with less money, Price did not give a direct answer.
Instead he pointed to Indiana as a state that reformed its health care system under the guidance of the current Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services director Seema Verma.
The Healthy Indiana Plan did not do more with less; instead, it used the money it was given for Medicaid to create benefit packages for low-income adults that were modeled after high-deductible health plans. This created health savings accounts for the poor that required most to contribute some money toward their own health care, even if it was only a few dollars.
Price will continue to push for reform and is confident the Trump administration will leave Americans with a better health care system.
“When we look back on this,” Price said, “I believe, in 10 or 20 years, I think that we will say that we moved in the direction of a much more responsive, much more higher quality healthcare system for the American people, and I still believe that’s what will occur.”