Opinion

What Tom Price's bobbing and weaving reveals about Trump's health care plan

When a nominee refuses to answer a simple question, it's probably because the real answer is going to be very unpopular

Confirmation hearings almost never produce the bombshell moment we sometimes seem to be expecting. Nevertheless, they can still be illuminating if you pay close enough attention, even when the nominees bob and weave to try to avoid saying anything controversial or contradicting their future boss. The latter is particularly difficult for Donald Trump's picks to head Cabinet departments, since the positions he takes change from day to day, and in some cases are in direct opposition to what Republicans plan to do.

So when Tom Price began his confirmation hearings on Wednesday to be secretary of health and human services, he probably knew he was going to get some questions that wouldn't be easy to answer. Price is a smooth politician and so he didn't get flustered, but he did offer a demonstration of what kinds of questions Republicans are nervous about when it comes to health care, particularly their plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Here's a clue as you watch these hearings: If a nominee is confronted with something Trump has said and they disagree, then whatever it is Trump is pledging isn't going to happen and they don't care who knows it. But if they try to wiggle their way out of answering, that probably means that it isn't going to happen, but they'd prefer people not know it.

For instance, in recent days Trump has given interviews to a number of news organizations in which he claims to be in the final stages of formulating his own health care plan, one that includes universal coverage and negotiations with drug companies over prices. Both these items not only appear nowhere in any Republican health care plan, they are absolutely anathema to conservatives. But writing in the National Review, conservative policy expert Yuval Levin says that his colleagues aren't that worried. "After Trump's Washington Post interview this past Sunday, the conservative health-care universe, including some people on Trump's own team, quickly concluded that the separate administration plan he described was entirely a figment of Trump's imagination."

I had assumed the same thing, but it's rather bracing to see someone on the right admit it so straightforwardly. Levin also suggests that Republicans should see Trump "as a kind of empowered one-man focus group of cable news viewers," whose utterances may be meaningless as a policy matter, but who can provide them insight into what the masses might find appealing at any particular moment.

That doesn't mean they'll follow his impulses, momentary or not. And so when Tom Price was asked by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) whether he agreed with Trump on negotiating drug prices, he couldn't quite say no, but he sure wasn't going to say yes. (Instead he said, "I think we need to find solutions to the challenges of folks gaining access to needed medication.") Similarly, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) confronted him with a pledge Trump had made during the campaign that no funds would be cut from Medicare or Medicaid — cuts Republicans in general and Price in particular are itching to carry out — he tried to shift attention, saying, "Senator, I believe that the metric ought to be the care the patients are receiving." Her attempt at getting him to offer a yes or no on cuts was unsuccessful, even as everyone knew that the real answer is yes, Republicans intend to cut Medicare and Medicaid.

Here's another important clue: When a nominee refuses to answer a simple question, it's probably because the real answer is going to be very unpopular.

And that's the dilemma Republicans are in right now on ObamaCare. Their repeal and replace plan — at least judging by the plans Price and others have put forward in the past — are driven by one primary goal: getting government as far away from health care as possible. Trouble is, that's a goal most Americans don't share. They've got other priorities. And the Republican plans would give them everything they don't want: more people without insurance, higher out-of-pocket costs, more complexity, and less security.

That, needless to say, is going to be a pretty hard sell. Which is why, according to CNN, the Trump team excluded Price from the planning for their "plan" (in whatever form it exists) because "the incoming administration wants Price to be inoculated from questions about what Trump's alternative to the Affordable Care Act looks like when he faces probing senators this week." Such a clever gambit!

But they're going to have to answer questions about it eventually. That's when the real trouble starts.

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