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Trump HHS nominee could curb regulations, reshape health insurance


 

Opinions are mixed on what the nominations of Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) as Secretary of Health & Human Services will mean for medicine and health care.

An orthopedic surgeon and six-term congressman, Dr. Price is an outspoken critic of the Affordable Care Act and has sponsored or cosponsored numerous bills to replace it. President-elect Trump called Rep. Price “a renowned physician” who has “earned a reputation for being a tireless problem solver and the go-to expert on health care policy,” according to a statement.

Not everyone agrees.

Physicians split on nomination of Dr. Tom Price as HHS Secretary
“On one level, his nomination is important because for the first time in many years, we have somebody who is a physician,” said Michael Rodriguez, MD, vice chair of family medicine for the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Health Policy Research. “That provides an important medical perspective to U.S. health policy. That’s a plus to have at the table when there [are] so many complex issues happening, from management of health care systems to health reform to global outbreaks such as Zika. [Price] has the potential to ensure that the perspective of physicians is represented.”

But Adam Gaffney, MD, a pulmonologist at the Cambridge (Mass.) Health Alliance, said physicians’ ability to care for their patients would be compromised if Rep. Price succeeds with many of his proposals, such as the privatization of Medicare and block grants for Medicaid.

“If these reforms go through, we’re going to see the insurance protections of our patients get worse,” said Dr. Gaffney, a board member for Physicians for a National Health Program, which advocates for a single-payer health care system. “If [his] agenda is successful, I think it’s going to have a detrimental impact on our ability to provide the care that our patients need.”

ACA repeal, malpractice reform

In the House, Rep. Price has introduced the Empowering Patients First Act, legislation, which would allow doctors to opt out of Medicare and enter into private contracts with Medicare patients. The bill is seen by many as a potential blueprint for Trump administration health reform. Rep. Price is also a proponent of malpractice reform that would make it tougher for patients to sue doctors and would lower liability insurance premiums.

The Empowering Patients First Act would repeal the ACA and offer tax credits for the purchase of individual and family health insurance policies. It would also create incentives for patients to contribute to health savings accounts, offer state grants to subsidize coverage for high-risk patients, and authorize businesses to cover members through association health plans.

The American Medical Association praised Rep. Price’s nomination, expressing support for ability to lead HHS.

“Dr. Price has been a leader in the development of health policies to advance patient choice and market-based solutions as well as reduce excessive regulatory burdens that diminish time devoted to patient care and increase costs,” AMA Board of Trustees Chair Patrice A. Harris, MD, said in a statement.

The American College of Surgeons' Executive Director, David B. Hoyt, MD, FACS, issued a supportive statement about the nomination of Dr. Price. "“Dr. Price is a stalwart champion for patients and their surgeons, and the ACS looks forward to working with him on key issues, such as the implementation of the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act,” said Dr. Hoyt in a statement. “The ACS encourages the Senate to swiftly confirm Dr. Price’s nomination as Secretary of HHS."

But thousands of physicians disagree. Rep. Price’s proposals on Medicaid and Medicare threaten to harm vulnerable patients and limit access to healthcare, according to an open letter to the AMA published on Medium and credited to Clinician Action Network, a nonpartisan group that supports evidence-based policies. The group was started in opposition to the nomination of Rep. Price.

“We cannot support the dismantling of Medicaid, which has helped 15 million Americans gain health coverage since 2014,” the letter states. “We oppose Dr. Price’s proposals to reduce funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a critical mechanism by which poor children access preventative care.”

Value-based payment or fee for service?

Rep. Price’s experience as a physician fuels his efforts to reduce burdensome regulations for doctors and enhance care efficiency, according to one of his predecessors, Louis W. Sullivan, MD. If confirmed, Rep. Price will become the third physician to be HHS secretary; Dr. Sullivan served in the George H.W. Bush administration and Otis R. Bowen, MD, served in the Reagan administration.

“He is very much aware of the challenges that physicians face in trying to delivery care,” said Dr. Sullivan. “I know that he’ll be working to reduce regulation when feasible so that the cost and delays that some regulatory issues present will hopefully be relieved,”

Some of those regulatory modifications could affect value-based care programs, Dr. Rodriguez said. Rep. Price has been critical of the move from fee for service to quality-based care and has opposed some corresponding programs, such as bundled payment initiatives. Rep. Price and members of the GOP Doctors Caucus wrote to Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in October to protest the regulations to implement the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA) as too burdensome for smaller practices and calling for flexibility in quality reporting.

Rep. Price voted for passage of MACRA.

“He has been cautious about some of the changes that are being promoted in health care,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “He could slow that down – the processes being put in place. That might delay the impact those systems have in bringing about the improved quality that we want. [This would be] enormous, given the amount of work that we’ve been doing.”

A fair medical liability system also is a priority for Rep. Price, Dr. Sullivan said. His Empowering Patients First bill would require collaboration between HHS and physician associations to develop best practice guidelines that would provide a litigation safe harbor to physicians who practiced in accordance with the standards.

“I know that he will be working to develop strategies to reduce litigation in the health space,” Dr. Sullivan said in an interview. “That is one of the challenges that adds to health care costs, adds tension, and enhances an adversarial relationship between physicians and patients.”

But Dr. Gaffney said that he believes Rep. Price’s views on reproductive rights and gay marriage are regressive and that his agenda regarding health policy issues is bad for medicine.

“The overall [theme] of that agenda can be summed up as ‘take from the poor and sick and give to the rich,’ ” Dr. Gaffney said in an interview. “I think the financing of this [new health reform] system will be much more aggressive, and the result will be greater health care inequity.”

Rep. Price also has supported a ban on federal funding for Planned Parenthood, calling some of their practices barbaric. He has also voted to prohibit the importation of prescription drugs by nonsanctioned importers and has voted to repeal the medical device excise tax.

On Twitter @legal_med

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