Trump Health Secretary Refuses to Testify on Family Separations

(Bloomberg) -- Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar won’t testify at a House oversight hearing on the Trump administration’s policy of separating families who cross the U.S. border from Mexico, setting up a potential fight with Democrats.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee plans to make the family separation policy the focus of one of its earliest hearings after Democrats took control of the chamber this month. In an emailed statement, committee Chairman Frank Pallone of New Jersey called Azar’s refusal “unacceptable.”

“We are going to get him here at some point one way or another,” Pallone said.

Azar “appreciates the important role of congressional oversight,” Evelyn Stauffer, an HHS spokeswoman, said in an email.

HHS has participated in briefings with congressional staff to update them on the children and has coordinated more than 100 visits for members of Congress to facilities where the children are housed, Stauffer said. Azar has largely avoided talking about the policy publicly.

“The secretary is fully committed to providing committees with the best subject matter experts available at the department to answer any questions about our programs,” she said.

Obamacare Questions

Pallone has also said he wants to hold a hearing on the administration’s handling of the Affordable Care Act. Democrats accuse HHS of sabotaging Obamacare, while the administration says it is trying to offer more flexibility around how the health law is implemented.

The committee has the power to subpoena people who refuse to testify, though it typically does so only as a last resort.

“Chairman Pallone is going to continue to push to have Secretary Azar appear before the committee to testify on family separation,” CJ Young, a committee spokesman, said in an email when asked about the possibility of a subpoena. “The chairman believes that Secretary Azar is the right person to testify before Congress on this matter.”

HHS has identified more than 2,700 children separated from their parents who were required to be reunited by a June court order. The separations were the result of President Donald Trump’s policy to take children who cross the border from their caregivers and place them in federal custody. HHS is tasked with caring for the separated children.

The inspector general at HHS issued a report Thursday that found thousands more children may have been separated during an influx that began in 2017 before the court required an accounting of those numbers. The report said that before the formal announcement of the policy, the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement “saw a steep increase” in the number of separated children.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.