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Pressed on tough health-care question, Tom Price blames the media

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), the nominee for secretary of health and human services, during a courtesy hearing on Jan. 18 in Washington. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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Back in spring 2012, Politico reporter Jennifer Haberkorn was reporting on what would be an enduring theme — divisions and uncertainty among Capitol Hill Republicans over how to replace Obamacare. “Ask the 242 House Republicans what kind of health policy they’d like to enact instead of President Barack Obama’s health care reform law and you might get 242 different answers,” wrote Haberkorn in the lede of her April 2012 story.

The disagreements, she continued, extended to whether it would be a good idea to replicate the Obamacare provision that requires insurance providers to accept all comers, even those with pricey preexisting conditions. As an example, Haberkorn pointed to a plan advanced by Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.). “It’s a terrible idea,” Price is quoted in the story.

That bit of reporting attracted the attention of the site Talking Points Memo (TPM), which led with this treatment: “Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), the No. 5 House Republican, says he opposes one of the Affordable Care Act’s most popular provisions — a ban on the insurance company practice of discriminating against people with pre-existing medical conditions. ‘It’s a terrible idea,’ he told Politico,” wrote Sahil Kapur.

That straightforward quote resonates these days, as Republicans are debating repeal and replace with greater-than-ever urgency, thanks to their control of Congress and the White House. In a Senate confirmation hearing this morning for his nomination to be the next head of the Department of Health and Human Services, Price saw those Politico and TPM stories flung right back at him. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) proceeded as follows:

Sen. Bill Nelson: You had made a statement that it was a terrible idea of people who had preexisting conditions that they would have the protection of insurance against those preexisting conditions and what I’d like to ask you is can you please, in light of President Trump expressing his desire to retain this basic protection: Do you think his proposal to continue the ban on discriminating against people with preexisting conditions is a terrible idea?
Price: No, I’m not certain where you’re getting that quote from. I’ve always —
Nelson: It came from Politico, Talking Points Memo, May 1, 2012.
Price: Oh well, now there’s a reliable source.
Nelson: So you didn’t say it’s a terrible idea.
Price: I don’t believe I ever made that statement. What I’ve always said about preexisting conditions is that nobody in a system that pays attention to patients, nobody should be priced out of the market for having a bad diagnosis.

This is a towering charge. In a Senate hearing, Price appears to be alleging that two media outlets all but fabricated a quote from him regarding health policy. If such a journalistic crime had in fact occurred, surely Price’s people would have worked aggressively over email and telephone channels to secure amendments and corrections to these stories. Right?

A Politico spokesman tells this blog, “There is no record that there was any disagreement, pushback, or a request for correction made when the quote was published.” And Kapur, now a national political reporter with Bloomberg, responds this way when asked if he’d received a request for correction: “The answer to your question is no.”

Note that Kapur’s story features input from a “Price aide” who — far from denying the “terrible” comment — adds meat to this plank: “we can achieve coverage through broader pooling mechanisms, even for those with pre-existing conditions, and tax credits. This should be viewed in the context of Obamacare, which is what we are talking about replacing. In the context of Obamacare, ideas like guaranteed issue and community rating work only if the individual mandate is in place.”

And Politico’s Haberkorn has now put some more meat on this bone as well. Turns out that Price said these additional words on the matter, in a Politico Pro story that is now behind a paywall: “In the Democrats’ minds, it’s necessary because they want to dictate the specific health coverage that every single American must have. If you step back and recognize that what we need to do is provide the kind of health coverage that patients want — not what the government wants for them — then the solution is to provide an opportunity for every single American to have the financial wherewithal to be able to purchase the coverage they want, not what the government wants for them.”

Asked whether Price had ever requested a correction, a senior communications adviser at HHS passed along this statement: “Dr. Price has fought for and introduced solutions that would provide affordable access to care for all Americans — including and especially for those who have a pre-existing condition. If confirmed, he looks forward to working with patients, doctors, Congress, governors, and all stakeholders to implement policies that will address these challenges so that all Americans have not only access to coverage but more importantly access to care.”

We sent another request to answer the first question, and we’ll be happy to report on any response.