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Opinion: TrumpCare Needs a New Doctor

HHS Secretary Tom Price isn’t helping

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price is not the right messenger to sell the GOP’s health care proposal, Patricia Murphy writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price is not the right messenger to sell the GOP’s health care proposal, Patricia Murphy writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Before Tom Price was Donald Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary, he was a conservative member of Congress. Before that, he was a mustachioed orthopedic surgeon in Atlanta, Georgia. For the sake of all that’s healthy, let’s hope that in his doctor days, Tom Price focused on the surgery and let his partners tell the patient the bad news. 

Based on Price’s chilly bedside manner explaining to America they’re getting a new version of health care reform and they’ll be grateful once they do, I imagine his conversations with patients used to go something like this:

“What do you think, Dr. Price?” asks the patient with a broken leg. Price purses his lips, gently rubs his mustache, and declares that the leg has to go.

“But it’s only broken,” the now-alarmed patient argues.

“No, no. It’s no good,” Price says. “A broken leg is worse than no leg at all. I have to amputate.”

With the thought of losing the leg altogether, the patient now decides he likes his leg. He asks Dr. Price to just leave it broken.

“You don’t know anything about legs,” Price says. “I’m the doctor. But don’t worry. Once I take off your leg, I’m going to give you back a knee.”

“A knee??” The patient panics and tries to leave, but he’s not scheduled to be discharged until 2018. Plus, his leg is still broken.

“Let me finish,” Price says. “You haven’t even heard about your next two surgeries. I can’t tell you what they will be, but I can tell you that you’ll have access to a very high-quality thigh and a foot after I’m done. You have insurance, right?”

And don’t worry about a second opinion from Keith Hall, the doctor Price recruited into his practice a few years ago. He’s not to be trusted.

“He does his doggonest to get it right, God bless ’em,” Price says of Dr. Hall. “But he’s woefully underperformed the other times he had to put a cast on a leg.”

No fix?

The patient, like America, is left confused and a little hopeless. Wasn’t Dr. Price supposed to fix everything?

That was the sales pitch from the Trump administration for Price to be HHS secretary at the crucial moment that Obamacare would be repealed and replaced after seven long years of Republicans’ swearing it would happen.

As a doctor, Price would know the health care system better than anybody.

As a member of Congress, he would have relationships with nearly every Republican on the Hill.

As a former Budget Committee chairman, he would know the ingredients to produce a bill with good metrics.

And as a conservative, the Freedom Caucus and others would welcome the bill that Dr. Price delivered.

But somewhere between his confirmation as secretary and the rollout of the Republican health reform plan, it’s impossible to see where having Dr. Price in on the operation has helped the effort at all, especially when he’s been hurting it so much lately.

Promises, promises

In fairness to Price, no man, doctor or not, could produce a bill big enough to contain Donald Trump’s swollen promises on health care, while also making it thin and beautiful enough for conservatives to love. Those were always going to be two demands that could not be met at the same time.

But the American Health Care Act manages to be both bloated enough to offend conservatives and stingy enough to offend moderate Republicans.

Unfortunately for Trump, having Price and OMB Director Mick Mulvaney front the effort did nothing to prevent their former GOP House colleagues from mocking the bill in real time, even as Speaker Paul Ryan gave his TED Talk about conservative principles and binary choices.

Price also wasn’t much help putting out a bill that at least looks good. When the CBO finally scored it, they warned that 24 million fewer Americans would be insured by 2026 than under Obamacare, a number even worse that Price’s own repeal bill that passed in 2015.

You can argue that producing legislation isn’t the job of the HHS secretary, even though Republicans said Price would be the one to do it.

With all the warmth of a Nor’easter, he has dismissed evidence that the bill could hurt low-income and elderly Americans and discarded the findings of his hand-picked CBO director. He routinely calls current insurance coverage “just a card.”

But as the mother of two pre-schoolers, I can tell you the pediatrician’s office asks me for my card every time I go in, including last Friday. I like my card.

One of the great flaws of the Affordable Care Act effort in 2009 was the administration’s failure to sell people fully on the idea, including 19 governors and millions of Americans who have opted out and left the system struggling.

Instead of a clear — and yes, compassionate — messenger to convince America that the cure won’t be worse than what ails them, the Republicans have sent Dr. Doom to give us the bad news.

The patient isn’t exactly buying into the plan of care.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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