Alex Azar, President Trump’s nominee to run the Department of Health and Human Services, has taken great pains leading up to his Senate confirmation process to send the message that he’s nothing like his ideological firebrand predecessor Tom Price, who resigned in disgrace in late September.
But under questioning from lawmakers on Wednesday, Azar confirmed that he aligns with Price on the policies Trump has implemented to weaken the Affordable Care Act, including the gutting of the ACA’s outreach and navigator assistance funding, the halving of the open enrollment period, the defunding of subsidies for low-income patients, and the severing of enrollment partnerships with grassroots and state level organizations.
“I would disagree that there’s any effort to sabotage the program,” Azar told an incredulous Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) during his confirmation hearing before the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Azar first defended Trump’s decision to abruptly cut off cost-sharing reduction payment to insurance companies after funding them for nine months, a decision that raised premiums significantly in the individual market.
He said simply: “Congress had not appropriated the money.”
Cutting the open enrollment period from 90 to 45 days, Azar said, made the program “more effective and efficient.”
As for the administration’s decision leading up to open enrollment to cut 90 percent of the outreach and advertising funding the government used to encourage people to sign up for insurance, Azar said. “At some point the insurers have to do their job and fund their own doggone advertising,” adding that the companies need to “stand on their own two feet.”
While some companies have stepped up their advertising in the wake of the Trump administration’s rollback of outreach, those companies aren’t operating in all parts of the country, and have no incentive to reach out to the millions of low-income Americans eligible for Medicaid. Private companies also lack the detailed data HHS has as to where the remaining uninsured Americans reside, whether they began an application for insurance, and other information.
Later, under questioning by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Azar doubled down on his defense of the cuts.
“The choices made were about what’s working and what’s not working, and there’s no sense funding any aspects of the program that are not working well,” he said.
Murphy cut in, asking in a voice dripping with skepticism: “Is your testimony here today that this is all in service of an effort to make the ACA better? Do you really believe that the goal of this administration is to help people sign up for the Affordable Care Act?”
Stumbling slightly over his words, Azar said he thinks the administration’s goal is to “with the program you’ve got, do as best you can.” He added that he believes the ACA has “a lot of problems,” and when asked if he would faithfully uphold and implemented the law, answered: “if it remains.”
Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.