Tom Price’s First Senate Hearing to Come Next Week; ONC Leadership Questions Linger

Jan. 11, 2017
The Senate HELP Committee will hold a hearing next week for committee members to hear testimony from Rep. Tom Price, M.D., (R-GA)—President-elect Trump’s nominee to become the next U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee will hold a hearing next week for committee members to hear testimony from Rep. Tom Price, M.D., (R-GA)—President-elect Trump’s nominee to become the next U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).

A statement released by the Senate HELP Committee’s chairman, Lamar Alexander (R-TN), confirmed that this hearing will take place Jan. 18 at 10 a.m. Speaking on Price previously, Alexander has said, “Dr. Price has a thorough understanding of healthcare policy and the damage that Obamacare has caused—he can see the view from the doctor's office as well as from the lawmaker's office. I look forward to working with him to find a responsible way to replace and then repeal Obamacare so we can move most health care decisions out of Washington, D.C., and back to states and patients.”

According to media reports, the Senate Finance Committee is expected to hold its own hearing for Price in the coming weeks. While it’s possible that many of Trump’s Cabinet nominees could be confirmed on the date of his inauguration, Jan. 20, there has not been any specific plans in place for Price—at least none that have been made public. The same can be said about Seema Verma, current president, CEO and founder of SVC, Inc., a national health policy consulting company, and Trump’s pick to run the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Both Price and Verma were said to have met with the President-elect in advance of his Jan. 11 press conference at Trump Tower, according to a Politico report.

Price, 62, a retired orthopedic surgeon, was officially nominated by Trump to take over HHS in late November. As Healthcare Informatics reported at the time, Price “has been active in pressing the Administration and its colleagues to provide more regulatory relief for physicians. Price is a chairman on a Congressional health subcommittee, the Committee on Ways and Means, through which he has previously voiced concerns about the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA). He also has advocated for shorter Meaningful Use reporting periods and more flexibility in terms of applying for MU hardship exemptions. It should also be noted, however, that Price did vote in favor of MACRA.”

Nonetheless, last month, nearly 500 delegates and members of the American Medical Association (AMA) wrote an open letter to the association’s Board of Trustees expressing concern and disappointment that the AMA has supported Trump’s selection as HHS Secretary. The letter noted that while Price has been a longstanding member of the AMA House of Delegates and a “friend and colleague to many in our organization,” a “formal endorsement of his appointment and urging Congress to confirm his nomination—as opposed to a statement of congratulations and continued commitment to work together—is divisive to our organization because many of Dr. Price's positions are inconsistent with longstanding AMA policies.” Patrice A. Harris, M.D., chair, AMA Board of Trustees, later clarified the organization’s original statement of support by saying, “Our support for Dr. Price to lead HHS should not be taken as an endorsement of every policy position he has advocated.”

Meanwhile, as just reported by Healthcare Informatics Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland, in Trump’s Jan. 11 press conference, the President-elect said that a “repeal and replace” of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is tied to the confirmation of Price as HHS Secretary.

Currently, HHS is led by Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who was sworn in as the 22nd Secretary of Health & Human Services on June 9, 2014. As the Secretary of HHS, Burwell oversees more than 77,000 employees, and has worked closely with other federal agencies within it, such as CMS and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) on healthcare reform, including leading national health IT efforts. On Jan. 5, Burwell delivered an 18-page Cabinet exit memo.

To this end, questions have arisen in recent days about the future of ONC, the health IT arm of the federal government. While there is strong belief in political circles that the agency won’t be dismantled or severely disrupted in any way, there is uncertainty surrounding who might take leadership positions at ONC after Trump takes over at the White House in nine days.

Vindell Washington, M.D., current National Coordinator for Health IT, submitted his resignation in December and will officially leave the Administration on Jan. 20. A Politico morning e-health report on Jan. 11 noted that “Deputy ONC head Jon White will stick around as acting national health IT coordinator after Vindell Washington departs on Jan. 20. While told Politico reporter Arthur Allen at this week’s joint Health IT Standards and Policy committee, "I'm here until the next person shows up.”

Who that next person is remains to be seen, though White did tell Politico that he is “pretty confident that ONC's path won't undergo major change under the Trump administration.” The report further noted that White met with Paula Stannard and a half dozen other Trump transition team members in late December. "They asked thoughtful questions about interoperability and other issues we're working on," White said, per the Politico report. ONC Chief Privacy Officer Lucia Savage, like Washington, is also a political appointee who will be moving on when Trump takes over on the 20th.  

An ONC official further pointed out to Healthcare Informatics that the recently-passed 21st Century Cures Act, landmark healthcare legislation with various health IT components, carved out a role for ONC in regard to promoting interoperability and fighting against information blocking. In the 996-page bipartisan Cures Act, which passed in the Senate with a vote of 95-4, and in the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 392-26, the responsibilities of the National Coordinator, as it relates to the law, are laid out in the “Title IV—Delivery” section.