Personal reproductive health-care decisions can have consequences for employees in the workplace, but the presumptive head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) begs to differ, just as he refuses to commit to protecting Americans’ access to contraception.
“I don’t think that’s the case,” Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), President-elect Trump’s nominee for the HHS job, told a U.S. Senate committee Wednesday about the existence of employer-driven reproductive health discrimination—echoing his assertion that “there’s not one” woman who can’t afford contraception.
Price’s comments came toward the end of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing, a nearly four-hour procession of Democrats repeatedly questioning Price over his alleged financial indiscretions and Republicans repeatedly apologizing for what Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KY) called an “anger management” session. A new CNN report found that Price “purchased shares in a medical device manufacturer days before introducing legislation that would have directly benefited the company.”
Price during the hearing wouldn’t commit to ensuring coverage of all 18 Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive methods, given the threat to the embattled Affordable Care Act‘s birth control benefit requiring employer-sponsored health insurance plans to cover such contraceptives and contraceptive counseling as preventive care with no cost to the consumer. The incoming Trump administration could eliminate the benefit via a new directive saying that birth control is not a preventive service.
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“What I will commit to and assure is that women and all Americans need to know that we believe strongly that every single American ought to have access to the kind of coverage and care that they desire and want. And that’s our commitment, and that runs across the board,” Price told Sen. Patty Murray (WA), the top Democrat on the HELP Committee.
“Well let me be clear,” Murray retorted. “Birth control is an essential part of women’s health care, and if you are confirmed, I will be holding you accountable for that.”
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D), the former New Hampshire governor who unseated anti-choice Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) in the 2016 election, grilled Price about whether an employer “should be able to fire a woman because she uses birth control.”
“I don’t believe so,” Price said.
But Price, as Hassan noted, voted with House Republicans on a 2015 resolution of disapproval taking aim at the District of Columbia’s Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act (RHNDA), a law that protects employees from retaliation over their reproductive health-care choices. Price again joined Republicans in a subsequent 2016 attempt to overturn RHNDA. The Senate never took up GOP-backed repeal efforts, leaving the law in place.
Price did not agree with Hassan’s characterization of his vote, nor with her characterization of RHNDA and other non-discrimination measures.
“Your vote would’ve had the effect of allowing employers to fire a woman for using birth control or for other decisions she makes about her own body and reproductive health,” Hassan said. “So, how is that vote consistent with the answer you just gave me?”
Price became evasive despite attempts from Hassan to pin him down, making the case that his vote would not have had that effect. “Would you like us to provide examples for you?” Hassan asked.
Price said a rule or law codifying non-discrimination wouldn’t be necessary, as Hassan raised in a follow-up question, because he said employers already “don’t have the opportunity” to discriminate against people for their reproductive health-care decisions.
Senate Democrats plan to reiterate the consequences of Price’s nomination on reproductive health ahead of a January 24 hearing in the Senate Finance Committee, which will eventually vote on referring the HHS pick to the floor for a confirmation vote.
Murray told the committee she would partner with Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) Thursday on a forum with witnesses “who can speak to the impact of health-care providers like Planned Parenthood, the importance of the work done in the Affordable Care Act to expand access to mental health care and substance abuse treatment, and the ways in which the full guarantee of Medicare has helped keep them financially and physically secure.”