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Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden On Tom Price And The Future Of Obamacare

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Republicans are in a place they haven't been in a long time - in control of the White House and Congress. So now that the inauguration is over, House and Senate Republicans are heading out on a retreat to try to map out how they plan to move forward. Today marks the first of three days of meetings in Philadelphia. Top of the agenda will be figuring out how to replace the Affordable Care Act. President Trump's point man on health policy is expected to be GOP Congressman Tom Price of Georgia. He's a longtime opponent of the Affordable Care Act, and he is the president's pick for secretary of Health and Human Services.

Tuesday, Price went in front of the Senate Finance Committee and got a lot of tough questions from Democrats in particular about what will come after Obamacare is repealed. The congressman spoke in pretty broad terms, resisting repeated demands by Democrats for details of the Trump plan. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon is the ranking member on the committee, and he joins me on the line now.

Senator, welcome to the show.

RON WYDEN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Donald Trump, as you know, campaigned on repealing the Affordable Care Act. Many people who voted for him said that was one of the reasons that they did support him. So Congressman Tom Price is the man who the president wants to lead this effort. Why shouldn't he be confirmed?

WYDEN: I do think - you mentioned that people who voted for Donald Trump - those people thought they were going to get something better. He constantly kept coming back to saying we'll have great care. We'll have something better. What we learned yesterday is the people who have coverage now, working families, could really be worse off.

I asked him repeatedly whether he would commit to making sure people would not be worse off, and he wouldn't do that. And, for example, right at the heart of the Affordable Care Act is the ban on insurance companies discriminating against people with a pre-existing condition. And this part of the Affordable Care Act makes sure that health care is not just for the healthy and wealthy. Tom Price has bills that wouldn't support that ban on discrimination. We asked him about it yesterday. He ducked.

MARTIN: Although he did say that that's been a popular part of the bill and he doesn't want people with pre-existing conditions to be discriminated against in the health care system.

WYDEN: But he wouldn't talk about the fact that he's always given insurance companies loopholes. I mean, for example, he wouldn't protect their coverage if they had been laid off or they had lost their employer-based plan. He basically, again yesterday, gave a green light to insurance companies to discriminate against 1 in 3 Americans just because of a pre-existing condition.

MARTIN: The Republicans will be taking the next three days to kind of rough out their plans for health care moving forward. Was it fair for you to expect Congressman Price to be able to provide any more than the broad strokes he gave you?

WYDEN: Well, we expected something resembling a direction about where the administration was going. For example, we asked about a replacement plan. Again and again during the campaign, we were told that repealing the Affordable Care Act and replacing it would be intertwined. Now you get, again, a little bit of indication from Congressman Price - when he was a member of Congress, he was for repeal and run. He basically wanted to repeal it and then he'd come back sometime and replace it. He was asked yesterday by my colleague Sherrod Brown and others about whether he'd be for a replacement. He ducked that, too.

MARTIN: You and Congressman Price had this extensive back and forth on the matter of a stock purchase he made - his own personal finances, a purchase he made this past August, hundreds of thousands of shares in a pharmaceutical firm. Price says that transaction was ethical, above board. As part of his vetting process, his finances were investigated. Where discrepancies were found, he corrected the error. So why engage with him on this? Do you doubt him?

TOM PRICE: First of all, let's put this in perspective. George W. Bush had a very fine ethics lawyer. He said he has never seen anything like this in decades. That's not a partisan Democrat. That's a conservative Republican. The fact of the matter is the congressman sat on a key health care committee. He was getting inside deals, what are called private placements. He undervalued the stocks in his reporting to the committee for purposes of his nomination all while he sat on the committee.

And it just seems to me - and this is what I asked him - that when independent experts, including conservative Republicans, are saying this was, at a minimum, extremely bad judgment, I think it's just a plain old abuse of position. The congressman, again, was not responsive.

MARTIN: While I've got you, I want to ask about another issue. In a meeting with congressional leaders Monday, President Trump again made the false claim that he lost the popular vote because of massive voter fraud. What do you make of that?

WYDEN: Well, you said it was false. And of course it was. I will tell your listeners that if the president is serious about strengthening the integrity of the way we vote in the country, he ought to support my bill to take Oregon's vote-by-mail system national. We have not had that problem. We have a paper trail for everybody who votes. This is something, in Oregon, Democrats and Republicans have been supportive of because it works. It protects the integrity of the system. So if the president is serious about making sure that we have a smart way to guarantee the integrity of the vote, I hope he'll support my bill to take Oregon's vote by mail national.

MARTIN: I mentioned Republicans are holding a retreat in Philly this week. Democrats are doing the same thing in West Virginia. What's the most urgent matter for you and your colleagues at this moment?

WYDEN: We'll come back to this whole question of how you create opportunity for working families. I'm sure we're going to talk about trade. I think we ought to be tough. We ought to be smart in order to protect good-paying American jobs. We're going to be talking about health care. And again, for me, it comes back to working families.

I'm very troubled by the fact that Congressman Price is talking about privatizing Medicare. That would be very harmful to seniors. Women would lose choice of health care coverage. He wants to shred the Medicaid safety net...

MARTIN: Yeah.

WYDEN: ...With block grants. That's what we'll be talking about.

MARTIN: Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, thank you for your time.

MARTIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID FRIESEN CIRCLE 3 TRIO'S "BRIGHT LIGHT SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.