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Trump’s Pick to Lead U.S. Health Care Defends His Controversial Investments Before Congress

January 18, 2017, 9:06 PM UTC

On Wednesday, Georgia Congressman and former physician Tom Price, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to oversee the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), faced tough questions from a panel of Senators on his significant stock purchases in health care and biopharma companies, his thoughts on a post-Obamacare world, and whether or not he agrees with Trump’s proposed method of keeping drug prices in check.

Price was testifying before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) in a courtesy hearing (his first Senate vote will actually come from the Finance Committee, which he will testify before in the coming weeks). And while the wide-ranging hearing tackled subjects like the health care social safety net, the opioid epidemic, and biomedical innovation, many of the most pointed queries centered on recent revelations that Price invested heavily in biopharma and medical device companies like Zimmer Biomet and Australia’s Innate Immunotherapeutics before advocating legislation that would benefit the industry’s bottom line.

Democrats such as New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand have both called for thorough examinations of Price’s potential conflicts of interest. Gillibrand, who authored the STOCK Act law that’s meanr to fight congressional insider trading, has even called for a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigation into the investments.

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During the hearing, lawmakers including ranking HELP Committee Democrat Sen. Patty Murray, Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, and others pressed Price on his health care holdings. While the Trump transition team and Price have defended the purchases by asserting they were made by an independent financial advisor as part of a broker-directed account, Price also admitted that certain investments were actually his decision during the hearing.

“You made the decision to purchase [Innate Immunotherapeutics stock], not a broker, yes or no?” asked Murray, referring to an Australian biotech in which Price made between $50,001 and $100,000 of purchases last August.

“That was a decision that I made, yes,” responded Price. What’s raised some eyebrows is that Price was alerted to the company by his colleague Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican who also serves on Trump’s transition team and is a director at Innate. Murray asked Price whether or not Collins’ conversations with him could amount to a “stock tip,” to which Price again insisted that all of his investments were ethically above board. Many of Price’s shares in Innate were purchased at a preferred price during a private offering to a small pool of investors, and in the ensuing months, Price staunchly advocated for the drug industry-championed FDA reform legislation the 21st Century Cures Act.

That sequence of events led Murray to ask her most pointed question. “Do you believe it is appropriate for a senior member of Congress actively involved in policy making in the health sector to repeatedly personally invest in a drug company that could benefit from those actions?” she asked. Price replied that’s “not what happened.”

Price has also traded stock in biopharma giants like Amgen (AMGN), Pfizer (PFE), Biogen (BIIB), and others, as STAT News notes.

On other major questions like what a conservative alternative to Obamacare would resemble, Price mostly demurred, sticking to broader themes such as “putting the patient at the center” of health care rather than government and ensuring that everyone “has access to care.” He did, however, insist that he didn’t want to “pull the rug out” from underneath anyone who has gained coverage under Obamacare – a statement that seems hard to reconcile with the various Republican proposals that have propped up now and again in Congress.

Former Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders pressed him on another one of the hottest issues in the health sector: drug prices. Sanders rattled off a series of strong statements by Trump during the campaign promising no cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security (a position at odds with Price’s own past proposals). He also asked if Price would support legislation to allow Medicare to directly negotiate drug prices and Americans to import cheaper treatments from other countries like Canada.

Price stayed shy of openly endorsing Medicare price negotiations, but did admit that his soon-to-be boss, Trump, doesn’t appear to have reversed his position on the issue.

“You have my commitment to work with you to make sure drug pricing is reasonable,” Price told Sanders.