ONCORD, N.H. — Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price on Wednesday commended police in West Virginia for “doing what they thought was appropriate” in arresting a journalist who shouted questions at him, but added that it wasn’t his call to say whether they took the proper measures.
Price said the reporter confronted him while he was walking down a hallway. “That gentleman was not in a press conference,” he said.
Daniel Ralph Heyman, a reporter for the independent Public News Service, was arrested and charged with willful disruption of governmental processes, a misdemeanor, after police in West Virginia’s Capitol building said he was “aggressively” trying to get past Secret Service agents while yelling questions at Price.
Asked Wednesday by STAT whether he thought Heyman should have been arrested, Price said: “That’s not my decision to make.”
Price was in New Hampshire on Wednesday to discuss the state’s efforts to tackle the opioid epidemic.
Heyman told reporters Tuesday night he did not believe he had acted inappropriately. Instead, he said, he was simply doing his job, seeking to ask Price whether domestic violence would be considered a preexisting condition under the Trump administration’s proposed health care overhaul. He was later released on $5,000 bond.
The episode drew the attention of national media organizations and civil liberties groups and largely overshadowed the visit by Price — as well as senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway — to the West Virginia capital to discuss the opioid epidemic there. Price and Conway have been on a listening tour in recent days, meeting with law enforcement, public health officials, and people with personal stories of addiction. They were in West Virginia and Michigan Tuesday and stopped in Maine Wednesday before heading to New Hampshire.
The events around the country have allowed Price and Conway to tout what the Trump administration is doing to fight opioids, but they have also had to deal with questions from reporters, advocates, and protestors about whether their actions contradict their stated commitment. Among them: A proposal — which the White House has since said is preliminary — to cut the budget of the Office of National Drug Control Policy by 95 percent, as well as the firing of former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who issued recommendations for tackling the opioid crisis in a comprehensive report last year.
Advocates are also concerned about the impact of the Republican bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
The measure passed by the House, if enacted, could lead to more than an $800 billion cut to Medicaid over a decade, which would roll back the Medicaid expansion, and allow states to define what services insurers had to cover, possibly excluding substance abuse treatment. The Senate has said they are going to be rewriting the House version.
But Price said that President Trump understands the scope and challenge of the opioid issue and remains dedicated to ending the crisis.
Conway said a key part of her and Price’s listening tour was to hear from people who have been affected by addiction directly. “We will take into account those experiences and individuals,” she said.
In Concord, the meeting with Price, Conway, and local officials was closed to the press, but afterward, Democratic Congresswoman Ann Kuster told reporters that “virtually everyone” in the room brought up the importance of the Medicaid expansion to Price. “It just kept coming up,” she said. She said Price did not respond to the concerns during the meeting.
New Hampshire is one of the 31 states that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, but the state’s governor, Chris Sununu, a Republican, didn’t say whether he wanted the expansion to continue.
Sununu said he had concerns about the bill that the House passed, but noted that the Senate was likely going to change the measure. He didn’t specify what his concerns were beyond saying he didn’t want to lose ground on providing treatment for substance abuse and mental health. He also credited the House and the administration for getting a measure through the House and said the White House had been proactive in reaching out to governors.
“Failure to reform our health care system in the United States is not an option,” he said.
Protestors lined the hallway outside where the meeting was taking place, with some feigning death to make the point that the Republican health care plan, in their view, will cost lives.
Amy Girouard, who lives in Concord, said she joined the protest because her 10-year-old daughter, Allison, has a rare genetic disease called Angelman syndrome and relies on Medicaid for her medical care as well as for services and aides at home and at school. She said she worried about GOP plans to put caps on Medicaid spending and about what the measure could mean for those with preexisting conditions.
“It would be devastating,” she said about Medicaid reductions. “It would severely limit the amount of assistance she gets at school and home, as well as limit her medical coverage.”