HHS Secretary Dr. Tom Price joined me this morning to discuss the ongoing collapse of Obamacare and the negotiations with and within the Senate:
HH: I’m joined now by Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Tom Price. Dr. Price, always a pleasure to have you. Thank you for joining me this morning.
TP: Wonderful to be with you again, Hugh. Thanks so much.
HH: I need to talk to you about the negotiations in the Senate, the opioid crisis, but I am a journalist, so I have to start with what happened to a member of my tribe, Dan Heyman, in West Virginia this week. He was arrested and handcuffed as he was pursuing you and Kellyanne Conway. Do you think the charges should be dropped against Mr. Heyman?
TP: Well, I’ll leave that to the local authorities. Look, this fellow, we were walking into the state capitol, and a fellow was yelling at us, which is not necessarily unusual from the press. But I turned the corner to head on into the round table, and something happened afterwards. So I’d leave that to the authorities there.
HH: You know, I would, I hope you’ll go over that with your staff, because I really think he was credentialed, as I understand it. The Washington Post has editorialized on this, and so I’m taking my facts from them. And I know we can be jerks, and I know we can yell, etc., but we shouldn’t be arrested even when we are totally off the charts screaming at people. And I would hope that you’d visit with your press people and come up with the idea that maybe you can give a nudge to the West Virginians to drop this. And what, was he being really over the top? Was he physically menacing?
TP: Not when I was going through, but that, look, this is an issue for the West Virginia Capitol Police. They were doing a stellar job. Our detail was making certain that we were able to get to the round table and to the press conference. This wasn’t in the press conference, you know, Hugh. This was, this gentleman was not in the press conference.
HH: Right. Oh, I get it. You know, I get that many people if they have the whole video would think, I would bet it revealed that he was being a real jerk. And the question makes no sense that he’s quoted as asking about domestic violence.
HH: But arresting a journalist is not something we do in the United States. That’s what I would hope you would consider that. Let’s go to the Senate, because there’s been a little noise in Washington, D.C. this week. Have you noticed, Mr. Secretary?
TP: (laughing) Occasionally.
HH: Yeah, a little noise, and some people say it will destroy the President’s ability to move forward his legislative agenda this summer. Do you agree with that assessment?
TP: Well, what I think is important for people to realize, is that from a health standpoint, what we’re trying to do is to save the health market for the American people. And that priority doesn’t go away regardless of what happens with all the noise behind us. So as you know, we’ve got an individual market out there that’s collapsing as we speak. Aetna pulled out of the final two states that they were involved in, in the exchange market, just this week. So we’ve got more and more counties, more and more states where the insurance companies are not able to provide a policy for individuals seeking health coverage. That’s a crisis. And what we need to do is to fix that, and reform and improve the system, and that’s what our, that’s where our goals are and where our mind is.
HH: And Politifact and I have been going round and round. I would like to ask you, I don’t want to get you in trouble with Politifact, but at least in those states where insurers are exiting, isn’t that the death spiral that we’ve warned about, because fewer insurance companies end up getting more high risk payments, then they leave. Isn’t that the death spiral?
TP: Yeah, well, this has happened, this happened before the beginning of the year. I mean, this has been happening for a couple of years as it’s built up. And it’s exactly what you predicted. It’s exactly what I predicted when I was wearing my other hat as a legislator, would happen with this system, because the system in its construct, the ACA, Obamacare in its construct, cannot succeed. It’s a model that is impossible to succeed, because it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for patients. It doesn’t work for docs. It doesn’t work for states or the federal government from a financing standpoint, and it certainly doesn’t work for insurers as we’re learning right now.
HH: Now Secretary Price, we are in a pretty big hole because of what we’ve got, the collapsing system. And it’s no secret that it’s going to be a big lift, and that some senators want a bigger transition, a longer runway away from the Medicaid trap that was built by Obamacare in terms of federal dollars. While there’s a limit to how much money we can throw at this, obviously, can you support coming up off of the House number if that’s needed to get 51 votes in the Senate?
TP: Well, what I’ve defined are the principles that we need to adhere to. That is a system that is affordable for folks, accessible of the highest quality, and provides patients the choices. The President has outlined his principles, which are to return the authority for Medicaid to the states, make certain we’ve got a transition timeline that works for patients, that we increase the ability for folks to use HSA’s, that we make it so that the patients have choices, that they’re the ones that are the ones selecting the kind of coverage that they want for themselves and for their family, so ending the mandates. Those are the principles. And so long as the legislative branch sticks to those principles, then, and we can reach an agreement, then I think we’ll be moving in a much, much better direction.
HH: I spoke to the American Hospital Association this week, Secretary Price, right after Senator Schumer. I think maybe Senator Lott and Senator Daschle were between us, but Senator Schumer urged all of those hospitals to activate all of their employees to deluge the Senate with do-nothing commentary. And I went out and said you’re crazy. You want to activate all your people to say give the money to the hospitals. Devolve this program. It does not work from D.C. And I think the devolution of Medicaid is the key to this deal. Do you think the American people understand that means innovation and quality?
TP: Yeah, yeah, what they do understand without a doubt is that more appropriate decisions are made, and responsive decisions are made at the state level than at the federal level. And the President knows this clearly. He believes so very strongly that the Medicaid system ought to be run from the states, not from Washington, D.C. And that’s why it’s so important to keep that as that principle, because it allows then the states to fashion their Medicaid program for their citizens, for their constituents, not for, you know, what’s right in Maine may not be right in California or Washington State or Florida or Texas or wherever. So we simply must allow the states to have much greater latitude and flexibility.
HH: Now Secretary Price, I believe the non-negotiables are the mandate has to be repealed, most of the taxes have to go, devolution of Medicaid, people stay on their parents’ plan to 26, no dropping of continuously insured people because their conditions worsen. Is there a guarantee on your part that there will be no lifetime cap on benefits for continually insured people?
TP: Yeah, we think that makes sense, but again, this is a legislative process that they’re going through. And the Senate bill’s going to look different than the House bill. And then they’re going to have to sort out those differences. But what the President has committed to, and what we’re committed to, is to facilitating and making certain that whatever we’re able to do to help that process along, and make certain that we get to a final product that will improve and reform the health care system so that patients and families and doctors are running the show and not Washington, D.C., then we’re happy to assist in any way.
HH: Now you’ve got some doctors in the Senate, and I always thought that you were particularly effective on this because you’re a doctor. Who are you dealing with in the Senate other than the Leader? I assume you’re dealing with the Leader, but who are you helping to help shape this Senate proposal?
TP: Well, we’re working with the committees of jurisdiction, obviously. Senator Hatch and Senator Alexander are the two committees that have primary jurisdiction over this area. But there are also, you know, you’ve got Senator Barrasso and Senator Paul and Senator Cassidy, physicians in the United States Senate. And we’re assisting and providing technical assistance, and responding to and trying to answer any questions that any of the United States Senators may have who are interested in moving forward in a positive and productive way.
HH: Last question on this subject, then. Back to the cost of the Medicaid transition, do you have any upper limit in your mind that you can’t go beyond in terms of dollars to make the runway longer for the states that have expanded?
TP: No, I think for too long in Washington, we’ve focused on money, and money is incredibly important, because you can’t get, if you don’t focus on money, you get to $20 trillion dollars in debt, which is where we are right now. But our goal is to make it so that the outcomes, make it so that the individuals who are utilizing the Medicaid benefit are able to utilize it in a way that makes sense for them and for their physicians and other providers. This is about what works for real people, what works for patients in the real world as opposed to what works best for Washington.
HH: All right, Secretary Price, next to the conscience protections. The President signed an executive order on religious liberty this week. It’s been almost two years since Hobby Lobby won their decision. Little Sisters of the Poor are still waiting for relief. When is HHS going to catch up with the court mandate that they give people conscience protections from Obamacare?
TP: Yeah, we’re working through that right now. As you know, we’ve got a new team in place, and with, it’s one of our priorities, and we’re in a deliberative process on that. It would be helpful if the Senate assisted and approved many of the nominees. You know, I have 19 individuals at the Health and Human Services Department who are presidentially appointed and Senate approved. And just this week, we got the third one in, Scott Gottlieb at FDA.
HH: Oh (laughing).
TP: So we would appreciate the, more expeditious action on the part of the Democrats in the Senate to allow these nominees to move forward.
HH: I didn’t it was three out of 19. I thought you were up around 50%. Wow, that’s something else.
TP: No, no.
HH: How many nominees…
TP: And one of them is me.
HH: And one of them is you, that’s true. But how many of the 19 have you sent up?
TP: I think all but one is in the process.
HH: That’s remarkable.
TP: …is in the process.
HH: That’s remarkable, given that we’re overhauling Obamacare that you don’t have your, that’s just remarkable. Okay, let’s talk a little bit about the opioid crisis, because a lot of people talk about it today. I saw that Hepatitis C is on the rise as a consequence. There are all sorts of downstream costs associated with this. What’s HHS doing?
TP: Well, this is an absolute scourge across the country. You know it. Your listeners know it. Every single individual has been affected by it. The numbers are astounding with the opioid crisis and overdose. Overdose deaths in 2015 in our nation, 52,000 people. 52,000 overdose deaths. That’s 33,000 of those from opioids. What that means, Hugh, is I mean, you and I are contemporaries. It means that the war that we lived through as in our youth, the Vietnam War, in 12-15 years, we lost 58,000 Americans in that war. We’re losing a Vietnam every single year to overdose deaths. This is absolutely unacceptable to the President. It’s unacceptable to us here at HHS, and certainly unacceptable to the American people. So what we’ve done is put in place a strategy to make certain that we’re bringing the resources to bear for recovery and treatment. We’re making certain that there are overdose reversing drugs out there wherever they need to be, trying to step back and say what, where have we gone wrong. What has resulted in this incredible scourge, and then doing the research and modification and education on pain management? There are so many exciting things that could be done out there, including the potential, imagine this, the potential for a vaccine that could be created that would stop addiction, incredibly exciting prospects out there. So we’re working on all fronts to make certain that we end this scourge. And the President is absolutely committed to it, and he’s given us that charge.
HH: Now I don’t want to get you in the middle of controversy, but I want to talk to you about, I’m going to Denver tonight to give a speech to the Colorado Christian University commencement tomorrow, and I don’t go to Downtown Denver, because it’s a complete havoc on the old main street, the 3rd Street Boardwalk, whatever they call it down there, because of people who are addicted and on the street. It’s like being in Times Square after 5:00 in the morning when I’m walking over to NBC. People’s lives have been ruined by this stuff. And, but they legalize pot, Mr. Secretary. There are connections here between how we view substance abuse that we’re looking one way on dope, and we’re looking another way on opioids. What’s the right answer?
TP: Well, the, I was privileged to be at an opioid summit, drug abuse summit, in Atlanta just a couple of weeks ago, and the individuals who have been working in this area and dedicating their lives in this area have huge concerns about the legalization of marijuana. And when you listen to the scientists, when you listen to the epidemiologists, the folks who understand and appreciate this, they have major concerns about it. Regardless of what legislatures do out there, however, what we need to make certain we’re doing from a federal government standpoint is everything we can do on all fronts to make certain that we’re trying to turn the dial back on this opioid crisis. I’ve been going around the country to Michigan and West Virginia and Maine and New Hampshire this past week to address this issue at the local level, because that’s where it has to happen. We can’t do it from D.C. We’ve got, we can encourage, we can provide resources, but it has to happen at the local level, one neighbor to another, one community member to another, to make certain that we save lives.
HH: Last couple of questions, Secretary, Rob Portman is a friend. He’s been on the show a lot. He cares a lot about this issue, was the sponsor of the Comprehensive Health Care and Reform Act last year. And he believes that’s one of the reasons why you need more Medicaid dollars in the repeal and replace bill, because we’ve got to transition communities into care and treatment facilities. Have you discussed that with him? And is there a special need in the opioid impacted states, and everyone’s impacted, but some states have got this more than others for a lot of reasons, for them to get additional funding for this crisis?
TP: Yeah, I have talked to Rob about it, and there is a need for additional funding, which is why I’m so heartened by the President’s commitment to this, and increasing funding by over $700 million dollars just this year alone to this crisis. And money’s not everything, but there are things that can be done with resources that are absolutely necessary to bring to the table. So, and it doesn’t make, it’s important to appreciate that regardless of whether one has Medicaid insurance or employer-sponsored insurance, or Medicare or individual private health insurance, we need to make certain that all individuals are able to access the kind of care that they need, especially for this challenge.
HH: So let me finish with back on Obamacare replacement, do we get a Senate bill this summer to look at and vote on, Secretary Price? I know it’s not your call, but you are a cheerleader for this. I think with the collapse in the individual market in so many places, we need to move quickly.
HH: Do you sense agreement on that point?
TP: I do. I do. Leader McConnell is absolutely committed to getting a bill out of the Senate, and we will continue to work with the Leader and all the other senators who are interested, as I say, in working toward a positive, productive outcome. And I do, I believe the Senate will produce a bill this summer.
HH: And will we get a vote before they recess?
TP: I believe so.
HH: Secretary Price, that is great news. Thank you again, and I hope you’ll go back and consider calling our friends in West Virginia and telling them the person, drop the charges. I have to speak for the tribe, Mr. Secretary. I have to speak for the tribe.
TP: Well, I appreciate that, but that’s not my call.
HH: Okay, you can advise. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
TP: Thank you.
End of interview.