WASHINGTON — Pro-life leaders and several Catholic political observers and physicians are ecstatic with President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of U.S. Rep. Tom Price to be the next secretary of the U.S. Department of Health Human Services.
Price, a Republican from Georgia, has been a staunch pro-life figure on Capitol Hill since his first election to Congress in 2004. He has a perfect voting record with National Right to Life, has voted to strip Planned Parenthood of its $500 million of federal funding, and early on criticized the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act as a direct attack on religious liberty.
According to Religion News Service, Price is a Presbyterian who attended Emory University, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church.
“He has a great deal of budgetary knowledge and the know-how to get through the reconciliation process. He sets the stage now for President Trump and a pro-life Congress to defund Planned Parenthood in 2017,” said Marilyn Musgrave, a former congresswoman from Colorado who currently serves as vice president of government affairs for the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List.
Price’s nomination is also seen as a clear signal that the Trump administration is serious about repealing, or significantly overhauling, the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, as well as restructuring Medicare and Medicaid.
An orthopedic surgeon from Atlanta, Price is recognized for having a detailed grasp on national health care policy. He has been a vocal critic of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law and has written legislation, the Empowering Patients First Act, to repeal Obamacare. Price would replace the Affordable Care Act’s system of mandated coverage and care with a free-market approach that Price and his supporters say will create more choices for consumers and freedom for physicians to make health care decisions without bureaucratic interference.
“I’m very optimistic that Dr. Price will come into this position and hopefully take a good, hard look at the Affordable Care Act and keep what’s good. … My personal hope is that health insurance will be affordable and available to everyone in the United States, that it will be as easy to access as car insurance,” said Dr. Lester Ruppersberger, president of the board of directors of the Catholic Medical Association.
In a prepared statement after his nomination, Price said he was “enthusiastic” about the opportunity to tackle the “incredible challenges” that lie ahead.
Said Price, “There is much work to be done to ensure we have a health care system that works for patients, families and doctors; that leads the world in the cure and prevention of illness; and that is based on sensible rules to protect the well-being of the country, while embracing its innovative spirit.”
But Price has his critics, who worry that his health care proposals will weaken consumer protections and possibly result in millions of Americans losing their health insurance coverage, especially the poor and elderly, who rely on Medicaid and Medicare.
“Price’s nomination is not good news for Catholics concerned for the working class and those in poverty,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.
Schneck, who served as co-director of Catholics for Obama during the 2012 election campaign, told the Register that Price favors cuts in “the vast majority of federal programs” that provide support for America’s neediest.
“For example, completely dismantling Obamacare would mean that 11 million Americans would lose health insurance,” Schneck said. “Even partially dismantling the law will mean that many, many people will be hard-pressed to get health coverage.”
“Similarly, rolling back Obama’s efforts to extend and expand Medicaid would add significantly to the number of Americans without health insurance,” Schneck added.
“Moreover, Price has been a strident advocate for privatizing the Medicare that Americans over 65 depend on.
While details vary, privatization plans like Price’s result in either higher costs for Medicare recipients and/or cuts in Medicare services or coverage.”
But Dr. William Toffler, a practicing physician in Portland, Oregon, who is a member of the Catholic Medical Association, told the Register that he is pleased with Price’s nomination to head HHS.
“I’m excited to have an excellent doctor, one who clearly has a clear sense of boundaries in health care, who wants to ensure the best of health care for Americans — and to do it in a way that is not literally jamming a partisan bill that has exploded the cost of medicine and restricted the rights of patients,” Toffler said.
Price’s supporters and critics agree that the Georgia congressman is a committed opponent of abortion.
According to the National Right to Life Committee, Price has voted pro-life 100% of the time since joining Congress in 2005. He has voted against federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, voted for a bill to ban abortions past 20 weeks, supported legislation to codify the Hyde Amendment’s restriction of federal tax dollars to pay for elective abortions, and has repeatedly moved to defund Planned Parenthood.
“There is no question that Tom Price is not just pro-life, but that he really cares about it,” said Joshua Mercer, the political director of CatholicVote.org.
In a press release condemning Price’s nomination, NARAL Pro-Choice America complained that Price had “not cast a single pro-choice vote” in his 11 years in Congress. Similarly, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, warned that Price “poses a grave threat to women’s health in this country.”
“From his plan to take no-copay birth control away from 55 million women and allow insurance companies to charge women more for the same health coverage, to his opposition to safe and legal abortion, Price could take women back decades,” Richards said.
Mercer described Price as “a pro-life stalwart” whose nomination signals that Trump will compile a pro-life administration.
“You could hardly consider a better candidate for secretary of HHS than Tom Price,” Mercer said. “He understands so much about the ins and outs of health care, how government works and budgets. … Donald Trump and the taxpayers of the United States are well served having Tom Price as the next health secretary.”
In his role as the HHS secretary, Price would have significant power to impact several important federal health care policies. Schneck said he expects Price will work to end federal funds going to Planned Parenthood. Some observers also believe Price could effectively undermine a recent HHS rule that says “transgendered” individuals cannot be denied health insurance coverage or treatment on the basis of their “gender identity.”
And if Price succeeds in scuttling the Affordable Care Act, Schneck acknowledged the federal contraceptive mandate — which was promulgated through HHS and requires employers to cover all government-approved forms of birth control, including abortifacient so-called emergency contraceptives and sterilization — would also be undone.
“Those who were so focused on how Obamacare’s insurance requirements might threaten religious liberty will no longer have that worry,” Schneck said.
Also known as the HHS mandate, the federal government’s contraceptive rule has been the source of dozens of lawsuits filed by religious nonprofits and private businesses opposed to paying for contraceptive coverage on religious-freedom grounds. In 2012, Price told the liberal news site ThinkProgress that he opposed the mandate. Said Price, “The fact of the matter is: This is a trampling of religious freedom and religious liberty in this country. The president does not have the power to say that your First Amendment rights go away. That’s wrong.”
While Price, once confirmed as the HHS secretary, would have significant statutory authority to make decisions that could impact abortion and contraceptive-related policies in the federal government, he and the Trump administration will still need Congress to move legislation friendly to their health care agenda.
“Tom Price’s legislation to replace Obamacare was very detailed and tackled a lot of the issues head-on,” Mercer said. “Does that mean that the final legislation that Republicans put out next year will look exactly like it? Probably not. There will be changes. But Donald Trump is picking someone who has thought a lot about this.”
There are some provisions in Obamacare — such as requiring insurance companies to provide coverage to people with pre-existing health conditions and allowing parents to keep their adult children on their health plans until age 26 — that seem to have support in the incoming Trump administration.
A Vision for Reform
Price’s supporters believe his vision for health care reform will not only protect life and provide coverage to the needy, but will accomplish those aims in a way that is consistent with Catholic ethical principles.
“As far as mandates are concerned, with Dr. Price’s pro-life reputation in Congress for the past 10 years, I would think the mandates for contraception and transgender medicine would more than likely disappear,” said Dr. Ruppersberger, from the Catholic Medical Association.
“I see Dr. Price coming up with health care reform that will protect life and protect conscience and also bring in competition that will lower costs and create more choices for individuals,” said Musgrave, from the Susan B. Anthony List.
Said Musgrave, “I believe he’s probably one of the foremost experts in Congress on how to unravel Obamacare and to make changes that will be beneficial to everyone: for the unborn, for medical providers, for lower income individuals and for families.”
Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.