Wyden Urges No Vote on Eric Hargan to be Deputy HHS Secretary, Citing Continued Campaign of Sabotage

I rise today to oppose the nomination of Eric Hargan to be Deputy Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. This is the number two position at HHS, the Chief Operating Officer. And of course, with Secretary Price’s departure, Mr. Hargan would fill into the top spot if he is confirmed. I have no confidence Mr. Hargan will lead the department in a different direction than it took under Tom Price.

Last week, the country watched as more and more details emerged about former Secretary Price’s extensive jet travel at taxpayer expense. Those flights were an abuse of office and the public trust, but in my view simply presents yet more evidence why I did not support his nomination in the first place.

Ever since the Finance Committee received Tom Price’s nomination, it was clear that he had little trouble flouting the rules when it served his own personal interests, rather than taxpayers. He used insider information from a fellow Congressman to get a sweetheart stock deal that made him hundreds of thousands of dollars.

He frequently bought stocks in industries he was overseeing as a member of Congress. And he pushed health care legislation that benefited industry insiders rather than patients.

After Tom Price was confirmed on a party line vote, he got right to work implementing the concerted sabotage campaign that the administration has conducted since day one. He was a top salesman for Trumpcare. He came before this committee and made countless other public appearances at which he willfully misrepresented the massive scale of the harm Trumpcare would have done to the American health care system. He famously appeared on national television and argued, in effect, that health care funding cuts aren't actually cuts. He denied that individuals would lose health coverage or see costs increase as a result of Trumpcare -- even after independent analysis showed that he was wrong. He used private jets to fly around the country scaring people who just want affordable health care. And he abandoned the president’s promise to bring down the high prices of prescription medicine.

It’s my hope that the president’s next pick to lead Health and Human Services will follow through on the president’s pledge to lower health care costs and get all Americans covered. But that nominee has not been put forward.

In the meantime, Mr. Hargan’s nomination has him in line to serve as acting secretary. Unfortunately, I have no reason to believe Mr. Hargan will deviate from Tom Price’s ideological agenda that includes constant sabotage of the Affordable Care Act. This campaign of sabotage is driving up premiums and confusing Americans who just want to be able to see a doctor and get affordable treatment.

I’m just going to briefly tick through some of the actions the administration has taken to undermine the upcoming open enrollment period and the effect that’s going to have on Americans’ health costs.

First, just a few weeks into his tenure, Secretary Price cut the enrollment period during which Americans sign up for health insurance on the private marketplace in half, from 12 weeks to 6. People across the country used to be able to sign up for health care from the beginning of November to the end of January.

Now, the enrollment period is cut off in the middle of December, right before the holidays. That’s going to cause a whole lot of disruption for people who are just working hard and living their lives rather than following every regulatory change coming out of Washington.

Imagine a 29-year old who just got locked out of the health care system because he’s had a three year routine of signing up for health insurance around the New Year. That’s exactly the kind of individual that the private insurance market needs to attract to hold down costs. Think of the single mom with two kids who marked January 30th with a bright pen on her calendar because she cut it close at the end of open enrollment last year. Her life is busy enough -- she’s not reading the health industry trade publications to see what’s happening with open enrollment. Because of the early enrollment cutoff, now her family will be locked out of the marketplace.

HHS is taking the healthcare.gov website offline for maintenance on all but one Sunday during the upcoming enrollment period. And the cruel fact is, Sunday has been one of the most popular times for well-meaning assistance groups to help people sign up for insurance at community events.

It’s like a state Department of Transportation blocking the highways and digging up the blacktop with construction crews every Monday morning during peak commute time. It’s the exact opposite of what common sense would tell you to do as a public servant.

The department is kneecapping the programs that are designed to get highly-trained people called navigators out into communities where they can help people sign up for insurance. HHS has slashed advertising budgets -- including zeroing out the budget for TV ads, which was a major driver of enrollment in years past.

So let’s be clear about what the department has been doing under Tom Price’s leadership. They’re working overtime to make it harder for people to get health care, plain and simple. But the sabotage doesn’t end with making enrollment a headache.

The administration continues to dangle the threat of cutting off cost sharing payments as if it’s just some sort of political game without any real-world consequences.

In state after state after state, insurers have made it clear that this gamesmanship is causing premiums to go up. If the payments are cut off, families will face premium increases of hundreds of dollars or more. And it’s all because the president is hunting for a political trophy. 

Finally, while Secretary Price was jetting all over the country and spreading falsehoods about the private markets collapsing, his department was neglecting their responsibility to work with states on elements of the Affordable Care Act. For example, Oklahoma designed a reinsurance system intended to stabilize the private insurance market and control costs and sent a waiver application to HHS. But HHS didn’t get around to approving it in time for it to help Oklahomans in 2018. So the state pulled their application.

There’s no reason to believe Mr. Hargan will come in and clean up this mess. If not for the administration’s campaign of sabotage, many states would be seeing stable or even reduced premiums this coming year. But the department is marching in lockstep with the president, who is committed to this mismanagement and willful wrongdoing. Mr. Hargan has made it clear what his stance is on the ACA in plenty of public statements.

Beyond the sabotage -- HHS under Tom Price shared the Trump administration’s abysmal record of responding to oversight letters from Congress -- particularly from Democratic lawmakers. Let me make my feelings on this extremely clear. This is a disgrace. It is profoundly undemocratic. Our obligation to perform oversight as members of Congress is derived from the powers laid out in Article One of the Constitution. The issues we raise in oversight inquiries to HHS relate directly to the health and well-being of the Americans we represent. We don’t do it for sport.

The Trump administration’s behavior is not that of a government that sees itself as answerable to the people. Either that, or it just doesn’t have good answers to questions about why it’s sabotaging health insurance markets and making it harder for people to get health care they can afford. Either way, they’re not doing their jobs, and they’re not putting the interests of the American people first.

Members on both sides of the aisle have expressed concerns about this issue of stonewalling oversight. In some cases it’d be more accurate to call their reaction outrage. Senators Hatch and Grassley, the two senior Republicans on the Finance Committee deserve credit for calling out the Trump administration on this front.

But the fact is, the Finance Committee has heard a lot of sweet talk from nominees on this issue, and it’s still a big problem. HHS absolutely must improve.

Colleagues, I will not support Mr. Hargan’s nomination today. Under Tom Price and the Trump administration, the Department of Health and Human services has done a miserable job of working to improve the health and well-being of the American people. And in their crusade of sabotage against the ACA, they’re doing enormous harm.

I urge a no vote.