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May 10, 2017 6:27 PM

Sununu has 'severe reservations' but says House passage of health care repeal a 'huge win'


CONCORD – Standing with President Donald Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary, Gov. Chris Sununu said the Trump administration has “been tremendous” in listening to the concerns of the states when it comes to repealing and replacing the federal health care law.

HHS Secy. Tom Price said the President and the administration are “committed to is to make certain that every individual has access to the kind of coverage that they want for themselves and for their family.

But he added that the White House wants to re-evaluate how well the Medicaid expansion program is working.

“I think it’s important to step back and say is the Medicaid program the most appropriate program for every individual,” the former GOP congressman from Georgia declared.

Price also side stepped questions about criticism that the changes to Medicaid expansion proposed in the Republican bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act would jeopardize federal funding that states like New Hampshire rely on to offer treatment for those suffering from drug addiction.

The Governor and the Secretary, along with Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, spoke with reporters on Wednesday following an hour-long closed-door listening session in the Statehouse on how the Granite State’s coping with the heroin and opioid epidemic. They heard from New Hampshire officials from law enforcement, public health and the judicial system, as well as recovery and treatment advocates, and victims of the drug crisis.

The Granite State’s been particularly hard hit by the epidemic. Overdose deaths in New Hampshire have soared in recent years, with nearly 500 deaths in 2016. And a new report released Monday indicated that drug and alcohol misuse cost the state’s economy $2.36 billion annually.

Then-presidential candidate Trump often talked about the drug crisis during his many campaign stops in the Granite State in 2015 and 2016. In an interview with NH1 News in Manchester in August of last year, Trump said “I promised the people of New Hampshire that I would stop the heroin from pouring in on the southern border. And I will stop it.”

But top Democrats in New Hampshire question whether the President has broken his promise. They point to his support of the congressional GOP bill to repeal and replace Obamacare , which makes major changes to the Medicaid expansion program that Democrats argue will weaken the funding for federal programs the Granite State uses to battle the drug epidemic.

Congresswoman Annie Kuster took part in the listening session, which was held in the Executive Council chambers.

After the session ended, the Democrat who represents the state's 2nd Congressional District told NH1 News “it was all about Medicaid Expansion. Every single person around that table who’s in treatment or prevention talked about ‘we cannot get the job done, to get people access to the care that they need without this expanded Medicaid.” And I for one expressed my concern to him (Price) that the Republican health care proposal puts that Medicaid expansion at risk. And there’s a downstream impact of that, which is that the providers of the treatment are very nervous about whether or not there will be coverage going forward.”

Questioned about those concerns over major changes to Medicaid expansion, Price asked “is there a better way to provide coverage. Is there a better way to provide services. Whatever the answer to that is the President is committed and we’re committed to making certain every single American has a seamless transition. If they’re in the Medicaid system and they move to an employed system, it’s a seamless transition.”

The Secretary vowed “that nobody falls through the cracks. That no rug is pulled out from anybody and that we make certain that the coverage and the care is available to every single American.”

Sununu: ‘I appreciate the progress the House made’

In some of his most expansive comments on the issue, Sununu declared that “failure to reform our healthcare system in the United States is not an option.”

“I appreciate the progress the House made. We have to move that ball forward. I do have reservations in some areas when you look at the details, some severe reservations about what was passed. But people have to understand this is simply one part of the process. The Senate is going to go through their process. They’re going to make their amendment and their revisions. So again, moving the ball forward is for us a huge win. It shows that Congress isn’t stalled, not stagnated. They’re not going to do nothing. I think we’ve had eight years of a lot of do nothing. They’re doing something and they’re standing up for the American people.”

And he praised the Trump White House, saying “I think this administration has been tremendous, not just in hearing in what we have to say, but in proactively reaching out to us and saying ‘what do you think about this, what do you think about this.’ It doesn’t mean we can get everything we want as part of that, but again I give the administration and the House a lot of credit in moving that ball forward. I think we’re still a little bit away from the finish line but I have a lot of confidence we’re going to get there.”

“This administration has provided a great philosophy in that they want to set a foundation and a platform for good policy out of Washington but they look to the states to implement it. Unlike the previous administration where Washington was going to implement and control everything, they want the states to be the implementers,” Sununu added.

Asked specifically what are some of his reservations with the GOP bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, the state’s first Republican governor in a dozen years said “we want to make sure that the progress that we’ve made in fighting the opioid epidemic here in New Hampshire, that we’re not taking a step backwards.”

And he added “that things like mental health, substance use disorder, those things are included as part of those carriers and those insurances as we go forward are going to be vital for our citizens.”

And the governor stressed “what’s important to New Hampshire may be very different than Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, California. So states need that flexibility so we can design those systems as we see fit and those systems can over time can also be nimble.”

Kuster tells NH1 News: ‘We’re going to be looking at actions, not words’

New Hampshire Democrats are also extremely critical of the White House proposal announced last Friday to slash by 95% the budget of the office of the ‘drug czar,’ officially known as the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Kuster told NH1 News that she’s extremely concerned “when we see a budget that proposes virtually eliminating the office of national drug control policy, when we see a budget that puts at risk the prevention funding that we need here in New Hampshire.”

“So we’re going to be looking at actions, not words, and that’s what we made very clear to Sec. Price today,” she added.

Asked about those concerns, Price offered that “there are actually hundreds of millions of dollars increase in spending on this issue.”

And he argued that “it makes sense to me to have the departments be the ones who are evaluating whether or not the grants from states and elsewhere are appropriate and to make certain we are getting the resources, the significant resources, greater resources, than have been given in the past, resources to the appropriate spot.”

Reporters asked to leave two Price events

The stop in Concord was the latest in Price's listening tour to state's hard hit by the drug crisis. Earlier in the day he was in Maine. Tuesday he made stops in Michigan and West Virginia. He kicked off his swing last month in Ohio.

Reporters and other media were only allowed to observe the first five minutes of the listening session before they were asked to leave. They were allowed back in after the session was over, to attend the news conference.

After their stop in Concord, Price and Conway held an event with Sununu at a downtown Manchester fire station that takes part in the Safe Station program, which allows people addicted to drugs to show up at firehouses in order to get directed to treatment programs.

Reporters were asked to leave the taxpayer funded fire station. They were later let back into the event.

Die In at the Statehouse

About 90 minutes before Price arrived, nearly 50 demonstrators staged a 'die in' in the Statehouse hallways outside the Corner Office and the Executive Council chambers.

Granite State Progress, the group that organized the event, said the protest symbolized what they characterized as the negative impact of "Trumpcare" would have on millions of Americans. Granite State Progress told NH1 News that if the GOP sponsored American Health Care Act becomes law, the more than 50,000 New Hampshire residents who get their health insurance through Medicaid expansion would lose their coverage.

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