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HHS Secretary Tom Price’s Triage of the Senate Health Care Bill

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HH: I’m joined now by United States Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Tom Price. Dr. Price, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show. It is always a pleasure.

TP: Good morning, Hugh, wonderful to be with you again.

HH: It is great to talk to you. First, give us an update. Do you think the health care bill is dead? Or is it just on the shelf for a while?

TP: Well, no, it’s still off the shelf. It’s on the workbench. And they’re working away on it. This, the bottom line is that something has to be done, that the current situation, the status quo, is untenable for so many, many folks. And the Senate understands that. The President is adamant about making certain we move forward, so I think it’ll happen.

HH: Now there is $188 billion dollars in the CBO score that would allow Leader McConnell and the other members of the leadership to do things for those parts of the health care crisis that haven’t been addressed. One of those is opioid addiction. So I just want to pitch you, Dr. Price. If each state got $2 billion dollars to endow, not to spend, but to endow opioid addiction treatment centers and other services for the poor, how could anyone say no to that?

TP: You’ve identified an area where that’s a passion of mine that the President is adamant about making certain that we address, and that’s the opioid crisis. And there are many senators who believe that more resources are necessary. I believe as well that more resources are necessary, but they need to be done in a way that provides for evidence-based treatment and examination of the crisis. We don’t need to be throwing money at this issue. We’ve got 52,000 Americans who died of overdose in 2015, and the numbers are no better today. And so we’re not doing something right. And so what we need to do is to identify those things that actually work, and put some resources behind those. And we in the administration would be wholly supportive of that.

HH: And you know, Dr. Price, you have studied this stuff. And so when I talk about it, and I did local health care access for 18 years in Orange County. When you endow programs, you don’t let them spend the money. You endow it, and then they spend the interest. They have to take time to figure out what works, but it does address the long term crisis, because the endowment doesn’t go away. You’re treating a long term…and the iterations of care change, just as over the course of your practice, you’re not doing the same surgery you did when you first became a doctor.

TP: Exactly.

HH: Opioid treatment will change as well.

TP: Exactly, exactly. And endowments, you know, you and I have got a few gray hairs, so endowments in the days of Jimmy Carter when interest rates were 20% worked pretty doggone well. Endowments now when interest rates are at 1%, may be a bit of a challenge. But we do need more resources for the opioid crisis. There’s no doubt about it.

HH: What else, have any of the senators, and I’ve named the big three who are blocking right now – Dean Heller in Nevada, Susan Collins in Maine, and Rand Paul in Kentucky. Have any of those three called you up and told you what they want or need to make this bill acceptable?

TP: We’ve spoken with each of them, and spoken with so many more senators as we work through this process. And it is a process. This is the sausage making of legislation. Once this is all said and done, these days of consternation will be forgotten so long as we’re able to get to a solution. And so I’m not alarmed by what’s happened at all. Again, I think that the bottom line is that the status quo is untenable. We’ve got a third, nearly 40% of the nation where there’s just one insurance company providing coverage on the exchange. That’s not a choice for anybody. We’ve got nearly 50 counties that are looking to have no insurance company providing coverage in 2018. This is not a plan that’s working for patients, working for people out there. It may work for government, but it’s not working for people, and that’s why we need to put in place the solutions.

HH: I’m talking with Dr. Tom Price, the Secretary of Health and Human Services. That brings me to our mutual friend, John Kasich, and I do like the Governor quite a lot. He doesn’t like this bill, but in my home state of Ohio, there are between 18 and 20 counties with no option. So I don’t know how not doing anything is an option. These people don’t have any care, Dr. Price.

TP: No, you’re absolutely right. Not doing something is not an option at all. Sorry for the double negative. But something has to be done. And even the sober folks on the other side who look at this objectively admit that, that something has to be done. Now they don’t agree with either the process or the plan moving forward, but it would be helpful if they came to the table in a constructive manner. But no, again, the status quo cannot survive, because it’s so many, many individuals are being left behind right now by the current law.

HH: So Secretary Price, give us an idea of the schedule ahead. Now obviously, there’s not going to be a vote this weekend. The July 4th recess is coming. I don’t know when the Senate comes back. But what’s your understanding of when Waterloo will be? I thought we were going to Waterloo on Thursday. We’re not. Waterloo’s been postponed. When’s it coming?

TP: Well, I think it’s important for folks to appreciate that once the vote was postponed, or the scheduled vote was postponed yesterday, that people didn’t just retreat to their corners and not continue this conversation. Work is going on literally as we speak on what kinds of things are necessary in order to get the support that’s needed to get this over the finish line in the Senate. So I think within a number of days, not weeks, but a number of days, we will know whether or not we’re able to fashion a solution, and then make certain that that bill can be written and scored. It’ll have to be scored once again by the Congressional Budget Office, and we’ll have to once again battle with folks who are a little distant from reality, and then hopefully, the vote will occur the week after the 4th of July when the Senate comes back in.

HH: I know, Dr. Price, Avik Roy was with me yesterday, one of the leading intellectuals of public health care in America, and he said you can’t satisfy the CBO without a mandate. And so there’s a central philosophical difference. We do not believe in the mandate at the heart of Obamacare, and so no score will come out. What matters is that there is money to work with, that $188 billion. But do you trust the CBO to at least keep the rules of the game the same so that they’re not going to torpedo whatever comes back by calling it a negative number outside of reconciliation?

TP: Yeah, I think so. You know, the CBO does a, they’re called the Congressional Budget Office, not the Congressional Coverage Office. So I mean, they do a relatively good job on the numbers, although any economist will tell that it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen. And if you read the entire CBO report, they couch it with all sorts of language like this is uncertain, and there are variables that can’t be determined specifically. So I think from a numbers standpoint, I think they’ll be okay. But the coverage, they’ve been off on coverage estimates for, they were off on Obamacare, and they’re significantly on this piece of legislation.

HH: I have two more questions, Dr. Price, and thanks for the time this morning. Dean Heller put the torpedo in the water, and I’ve been very hard on him. And I know you know him from his House days, etc. Is there anything he wants that you think the legislation can give, not a special, not a Cornhusker Kickback, not a Louisiana Purchase, is there something systemic like an endowment that he wants that will bring him back on board, because I think he’s doomed as a Republican candidate if he doesn’t get back on board? You know, I’ll spend my time getting him beaten.

TP: Well, Senator Heller’s concerns are appropriate, but there’s a lot of misinformation out there. And my sense is that sometimes that misinformation has taken over good folks. Senator Heller’s concerns are on the, to make certain that everybody has an opportunity to be covered, and through the tax credits and refundable tax credits, we’re providing that. And his concerns are on the Medicaid issue, to make certain that the resources that have been available for folks who are in that vulnerable population area don’t go away. We’ve been able to provide some significant updates on numbers for Senator Heller’s office, and we’ll continue to do so for folks in the state of Nevada. And I think Senator Heller will get there, because we’ve got solid figures, and positive figures behind the legislation about how it will, what the consequences of it will be for those two populations.

HH: Okay, last question, Rand Paul, I don’t know that, he’s a party of one. Like you, he’s a doctor, and like you, he’s a surgeon. And surgeons aren’t the most flexible people.

TP: (laughing)

HH: Is there any way to bring Rand Paul into this conversation?

TP: Well, Rand’s a good friend, and he has sincere concerns as well about completely doing away with the previous law. He’s having conversations with the President, with the Vice President. And I’m hopeful and prayerful that Rand will be able to be supportive at the end of the day.

HH: All right, my last pitch to you, Secretary Price, I really do believe in letting local people handle this. I do believe in endowments for states that are structured with few rules. I did it for 18 years. If they’re going to try and buy senators votes by increasing benefits, do it via endowment. I realize the endowment numbers are low, but that will return with good investing.

TP: Yeah.

HH: Let the states decide how to deal with their particular opioid crisis. Washington, I don’t know whether you agree with me or not, they can’t be the repository of wisdom on this.

TP: Well, you know I agree with you on that. That’s what I’ve been fighting for, for 20-plus years…

HH: Yup.

TP: …is that the font of all wisdom is not in this city. I promise you.

HH: Dr. Price, always good to talk to you. I’ll see you soon. Hope you’ll join me Saturday on MSNBC someday to talk about this stuff.

TP: Look forward to it, Hugh, take care.

HH: Thank you, Dr. Price.

End of interview.


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