President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to be Health and Human Services secretary sold shares of once high-flying biotech company Gilead Sciences Inc. in March while buying those of marquee drugmakers including Pfizer Inc. and Eli Lilly & Co. They are among the latest trades reported by Rep. Tom Price, a Georgia Republican who’s long been an investor in medical stocks, according to congressional filings.
Members of Congress can buy and sell shares, even if the committees on which they serve directly influence federal policies affecting companies whose stock they own. Still, they should avoid actively investing in industries they oversee, said Richard W. Painter, who was an ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush’s administration. While there’s little chance that a lawmaker will have knowledge affecting a company’s stock price beyond what’s known to the general public, it raises questions, Painter said.
Price is a member of the Ways and Means subcommittee on health, which oversees Medicare. Even if Price doesn’t have any insider knowledge affecting his purchases due to his position in Congress, Painter said, his trading in health care shares creates the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“Good judgment would be to stay out of health care stocks if you are on a health-care related committee,” Painter, who is now with the University of Minnesota Law School, told CQ Roll Call. “Stay out of energy stocks if you are on an energy committee. Stay out of defense stocks if you are on Armed Services.”
A spokesman for the transition team for HHS defended Price. If confirmed as secretary of HHS, “Dr. Price intends to comply fully with all applicable laws and ethics rules governing his personal finances — just as he does currently as a member of Congress,” said spokesman Phil Blando in a statement to CQ Roll Call.
Still, Price’s trading may arise as an issue at the Senate Finance Committee hearing on his nomination, Painter said. That’s a view shared by Michael Carome, director of nonprofit Public Citizen’s Health. Carome noted that the recently cleared “21st Century Cures Act” is intended to make it easier for manufacturers of drugs and medical devices to get their products to market. Price was among the 392 House members who voted in favor on it last month.
‘Undermines the public trust’
“It undermines the public trust,” Carome said of Price’s stock sales and purchases.
Price’s interest in health care businesses appears to be reciprocated. He received campaign contributions of more than $158,000 from makers of drugs and other health products in the current campaign cycle, according to a tally by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Price appears to have been most active this year on March 17, according to his filings for this year. An April disclosure shows that he traded shares of more than 70 companies’ stock that day, including Facebook Inc., Mastercard Inc. and Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. These trades all fell into the smallest category that lawmakers report on financial forms, with transactions valued at $1,001 to $15,000.
Price’s March trades of health stock picks have had mixed results to date. As of Tuesday afternoon, shares of insurance giant Aetna Inc. and drugmakers Amgen Inc., Lilly and Pfizer were selling for more than they did on March 17, the day on which Price reported buying shares. Prices have slipped in that period, though, for other stocks that the nominee reported buying, including those of information technology company athenahealth, Inc. and pharmacy giant CVS Health Corp.
Price appears to have timed his sale of Gilead shares fairly well, with the March 17 closing price reaching $89.53. He did miss out on some gain in the stock. Gilead hit $102.33 a share on April 26 before dropping after reports of slowed sales of Harvoni, a blockbuster drug for hepatitis C. On Tuesday, Gilead shares had a closing price of $74.05, more than $15 below their closing price on the day Price reported his sale.
Gilead has attracted the attention of members of the Senate Finance Committee. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., conducted an 18-month probe, reviewing 20,000 pages of documents and conducting dozens of interviews to determine how Gilead priced an earlier hepatitis C drug, Sovaldi, and Harvoni, which combines Sovaldi and another drug.
Their report concluded that Foster City, Calif.-based Gilead pursued a revenue-driven strategy in determining the $1,000 cost of a Solvadi pill, which can correspond to $84,000 for a single course of treatment. Gilead said in a regulatory filing that it disagrees with the conclusions of this report.
Gilead’s pricing of its hepatitis C treatments helped fuel the debate in recent years over drug pricing. Sovaldi’s eye-popping initial price of $1,000 a pill drew concern from federal officials, lawmakers, employers and governors.
While competition from other hepatitis treatments and bargaining by insurers and their pharmaceutical proxies lowered their cost, Gilead’s hepatitis C treatments proved to be major expenses for federal and state programs in recent years. Medicare spent more than $7 billion last year on Harvoni, according to the agency’s drug spending dashboard. This figure may not include rebates. Still, it’s clear that the federal program was a major purchaser of Harvoni. Gilead claimed more than $10 billion in domestic sales of the drug last year.
Gilead investors watched sales of its hepatitis C treatments closely, anticipating a slowdown. There was rapid uptake of its products, which are taken with the aim of clearing the liver-threatening virus from the body. That makes Harvoni and Solvadi different from other medicines, such as cholesterol and blood pressure pills that people take daily for years. Gilead’s sales of Harvoni dropped by more than half in one year to less than $1.5 billion in the first three months of this year from more than $3 billion in the year-earlier period.