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VOL. 41 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 24, 2017

Trump's top health official gets bipartisan grilling

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump's top health official got strong pushback Wednesday from lawmakers of both parties about deep cuts the White House is pressing in medical research, public health and social service programs.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price also dodged repeated attempts by Democrats to flush out the administration's next move on the Obama-era health insurance law.  President Donald Trump's push to repeal the health care law failed last week because of disagreement among Republicans.

"This is a tough budget year. There's no doubt about it," Price told the House panel that oversees his budget. When Democrats accused him of trying to dismantle a government department that provides vital services, he shot back: "It is not the goal of this secretary to deconstruct the department." Democrats were pummeling Price with a phrase used by White House strategist Stephen Bannon, who has said "deconstruction of the administrative state" is Trump's mission.

Most of the $1 trillion-plus HHS spends is for entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid, which are insulated from the annual budgeting process, called appropriations. But the White House wants a 16 percent cut in everything else. The National Institutes of Health, the nation's premier medical research institution, faces a cut of nearly 20 percent.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees HHS, told Price that's highly unlikely. He said NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are every bit as important as national defense. "Frankly, you're much more likely to die in a pandemic than you are in a terrorist attack," said Cole, adding: "I'd rather fight Ebola (the deadly virus) in West Africa than in West Dallas."

While Price said he personally values and admires the work of both agencies, he suggested that NIH research grants to medical investigators contain a hefty portion of lard: 30 percent for "indirect expenses ... something other than the research." A Republican committee member said private foundation medical research grants allocate much less or nothing at all for such expenses.

Price said more detail is coming in another White House budget document due in late May, and he hinted that would include proposals on entitlement programs, or "mandatory" spending.

Price tried to walk a fine line on the Affordable Care Act, the Barack Obama law that has helped reduce the nation's uninsured rate to a record low under 9 percent. While acknowledging that the ACA remains the law of the land, he would not commit on specific steps to help keep it working, or on what the administration might try to do to change it.

Upholding federal law "is my sworn oath," said Price. "So long as the law is on the books, we at the department are obligated to enforce the law."

Asked about a looming decision on whether to continue to provide billions of dollars in ACA subsidies to cover insurance deductibles and copayments for low-income people, Price said he couldn't respond because the matter is under litigation. Asked if the administration is exploring ways to loosen the ACA's "essential" required benefits, he sidestepped.

"This really is a strange hearing," Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., told Price. "You come before us with a skinny budget (and) the few clear details will have catastrophic results for Americans."