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HHS Secretary: Health Can't Improve Unless People's Lives Do

Tom Price has a vision for a "reimagined HHS" that adopts a more holistic approach to problem solving and relies more on states and localities.

U.S. Health and Human Secretary Tom Price at a conference in Baltimore on Wednesday.
Earlier this week, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price announced plans for a “reimagined HHS.” To him, that means an agency that relies more on state and local governments to address the nation’s health and social needs, and one that improves the coordination between the health and human services sides of the department.

“Life can send all sort of detours our way that oftentimes get in the way of a healthy living,” he said, citing unemployment, drug addiction, neighborhood violence and family conflicts as examples. “All of those things can imperil both physical and mental health. Doctors will never be able to get care right for so many of their patients unless patients are able to receive the support that they need from communities in the human services realm.”

He made those remarks on Wednesday at a conference in Baltimore where state and local government officials met with nonprofit social service providers. The event was co-hosted by the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA), whose members administer a wide array of federal health and social programs -- from food stamps to Medicaid to child care subsidies -- in states, counties and cities. It was the first time since 2009 that the nation's HHS secretary had addressed APHSA members at a conference.

His agency is best known for overseeing Medicare and Medicaid and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, but Price assured the audience that he's aware of the important role that social programs also play in helping people lead healthy, successful lives.

"I know that the human services side often feels like the red-headed stepchild in HHS," he said. "We want to make certain that they understand that on any given day, on any given issue, we're not thinking about health or human services, we're thinking about health and human services."

Price predicted that as the baby boomer generation ages and retires, more of the federal budget will go to mandatory spending for Social Security and Medicare, and states will shoulder greater responsibility for providing human services. But he said his agency would try to be more supportive and collaborative as that shift occurs.

The secretary also asked for suggestions from the audience about federal regulations that should be changed, funds that could be combined and other hurdles that ought to be lowered or removed.

“We want to receive your ideas,” he said. “I ask you, I challenge you, to think creatively.”

“I think that struck a really good chord with the people in this room,” says Tracy Wareing Evans, the president and CEO of APHSA.

In his speech, Price identified three priority areas for his department: childhood obesity, opioid addiction and mental health. He did not discuss the Affordable Care Act -- a law he vocally opposed as a Congressman -- or Republican lawmakers' current negotiations to repeal and replace it. 

Price assumed the secretary post in February after 12 years in Congress and eight years as a state senator in Georgia. He’s an orthopedic surgeon and only the third physician to oversee the department. He described his position in the Trump administration as “the culmination of a life’s work.”

Though most of his remarks on Wednesday praised state and local officials, he urged them to do more to incentivize recipients of government aid to work. As a member of Congress and during his confirmation hearings, he expressed support for block-granting Medicaid and allowing states to set work requirements for government checks.

“If we’re not designing our programs to support and encourage work, we’re doing a disservice to the health and well-being of our fellow citizens,” he said. “We simply must do a better job.”

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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