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Tom Price

Orthopedic surgeon Tom Price, a Republican congressman from Georgia, is President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to head the $1 trillion Department of Health and Human Services.

Paul Morigi

Drug, HIV crises hit HHS nominee Price close to home

Representative Tom Price (R–GA), the physician and congressman who is Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), represents a wealthy suburban district just north of Atlanta that is regularly ranked by Forbes and others as one of the best places to live in the country.

But Price’s district is also experiencing some public health crises that he will likely be dealing with as HHS secretary: a serious heroin and opioid abuse epidemic, as well as elevated HIV infection rates.

The heroin problem was described in great detail in this investigative special by the local NBC affiliate 11Alive, which aired in March.  The narrator introduces the multipart series with the following stark facts:

“Just north of Atlanta, heroin is killing more of our young people than violent crime. Atlanta’s most affluent area is dealing with a nearly 4000% increase in heroin-related deaths over the past 5 years.” She names as particular problems towns including Alpharetta, Roswell, and Johns Creek—all in the heart of Price’s district.

Data released this week by the Big Cities Health Coalition Project further flesh out the picture. It shows Fulton County—which takes up a chunk of Price’s district, as well as much of the city of Atlanta—with a higher rate of HIV diagnoses in 2013 and of accidental deaths from opioid overdoses in 2014 than all but one of 28 cities studied.

The problem has clearly caught the attention of some in the Price household. Price’s wife, Betty Price, an anesthesiologist who since 2015 has represented the couple’s home district in the Georgia House of Representatives, pushed through the Georgia House this last March a bill that would have liberalized state needle exchange programs. (Dirty needles used by injectable drug users are a prime source of HIV and hepatitis C infections.) Betty Price’s bill would have allowed counselors, programs for the homeless, drug treatment centers, and other organizations, in addition to doctors and pharmacists, to distribute sterile syringes to intravenous drug users. However, the bill failed in the state Senate, “due to some controversial aspects,” Betty Price told Georgia Health News.

The other Dr. Price, on the other hand, voted to block U.S. funding for needle exchange programs in 2009, several years into his now-12-year stint representing Georgia’s sixth Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He also voted in 2007 to prevent the District of Columbia from using its own, nonfederal funds on needle exchange programs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute of Medicine, and numerous other scientific bodies have found needle exchange programs to be highly effective in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.

It’s unclear whether, and to what extent, Tom Price’s experience of the opioid epidemic plaguing his home district will influence his priorities should the Senate confirm him as HHS secretary; neither of the doctors Price was available for comment.

At least one advocacy group, however, is not optimistic about the impact of a Tom Price tenure as secretary of the $1 trillion HHS. The Washington, D.C.–based group Communities Advocating Emergency AIDS Relief issued a 30 November statement pronouncing itself “deeply concerned” by Price’s nomination, not least because of his intent to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which has allowed full health insurance coverage for many more people living with HIV.

In the meantime, the new U.S. representative from Georgia’s sixth district could end up voting differently on needle exchange than the current occupant of that seat: Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, reports this week that Betty Price may be running for her husband’s seat.