Maine Health Groups Concerned About New Health and Human Services Commissioner

Feb 12, 2017

In the early hours Friday morning, Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Price of Georgia was confirmed as the new secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The reaction among physicians and consumer groups in Maine is mixed, because Price, who is also an orthopedic surgeon, has supported making major changes to Medicaid, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act.

Before the vote to confirm Price, independent U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine issued a strong warning on the Senate floor against the nominee.

“This guy is a wrecking ball. He’s not a Secretary. He’s going into this agency to destroy it,” he says.

Since Price’s confirmation, the language coming out of Maine about the new Health and Human Services Secretary is more cautious.

“Kind of a mixed bag,” says the Maine Medical Association’s Gordon Smith.

Smith says the MMA does not support Price’s previously stated positions that favor converting Medicaid to a block grant program and limiting Medicare payments to cover beneficiaries’ medical care. But Smith emphasizes that these are previous positions, and that Price could change his tune now that he oversees health for the country.

Smith says Price brings at least one positive to the position.

“He is a physician. He’s not a bureaucrat. He understands medicine and he understands the importance of patients being covered,” he says.

But Emily Brostek of Consumers for Affordable Health Care is far less optimistic.

“I have serious concerns about his confirmation as head of HHS, just in terms of his positions. He’s been a fierce critic of some of the pillars of our health system,” she says.

Along with the changes Price has wanted to make to Medicaid and Medicare, he has also vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act. A replacement plan he crafted two years ago called the Empowering Patients First Act favors the use of health savings accounts, would establish high-risk pools and provide tax credits based on people’s age versus income.

Brostek says most changes to the Affordable Care Act can’t happen overnight. But Price will have some leeway because of the executive order President Donald Trump signed on his first day in office to reduce ACA regulations and taxes.

“So that’s a directive, now that we have a head of HHS, he’ll be taking up and deciding how to carry that out. So that’s a big question,” she says. “There is a fair amount that can be done by the administration without requiring legislation.”

Secretary Price did get a vote of confidence from Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. Her spokeswoman released a statement saying she does disagree with Dr. Price on some issues, but believes having a medical doctor at the helm of the department will be helpful, and she looks forward to working with him to help increase access to affordable health insurance for all Americans.