The Senate is set to approve Rep. Tom Price to serve as the nation’s top health official sometime Thursday or early Friday, but how his confirmation will affect Republican plans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act still remains unclear.
Republicans say having Price in his role as Secretary of Health and Human Services is an important step in their efforts to overhaul the ACA. But they have been vague about what they’d like to see immediately from Price.
Part of the problem is Price himself offered few specifics during confirmation hearings last month about what he plans to do once he’s sworn in.
Asked if there were steps he’d like to see Price take in his first few weeks on the job, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said, “We’ll let him decide that.” Still, Alexander has said administrative action could be important for dismantling Obamacare and replacing it.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the majority whip, said there were “many” actions he’d like to see, but declined to give specifics.
“We’re anxious to get him there because he’s going to be an instrumental agent of change when it comes to … repealing and repairing Obamacare after we replace it,” Cornyn said this week.
But some conservatives have warned they don’t want to see Price and the executive branch overstep the role of Congress, which is in charge of the heavy lifting of repealing and replacing the law.
“It’s more incumbent upon us to act, the sooner the better, and then see how we can work hand in glove with a new secretary of HHS to implement that on the rules and regulation side,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) told reporters this week.
One area where Price may be able to make changes is to the ACA’s essential health benefits: the 10 benefit categories that must be covered in plans sold in the individual and small group markets, such as maternity care and emergency care.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said this week those are “very problematic.”
“The way they’re written, Tom Price can do some things to make them work much better,” he said. While some of that would need to be addressed through legislation, “The HHS secretary can give some significant guidance and affect that in a big way,” he added.
But Price would still wield broad authority over Obamacare, which he has railed against for years. President Donald Trump on his first day in office signed an executive order giving the HHS secretary and other executive agency heads “all authority and discretion available to them” under law to alter the health care law to make it more affordable for patients, providers, insurers and drug and device manufacturers.
Trump has also said he would put forth his health care plan after Price is confirmed and in office.
Already, the Trump administration has a proposed rule currently being reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget that is expected to tighten regulations meant to stabilize the individual marketplace.
In a confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee last month, Price was coy about what sort of steps he might take if confirmed.
“What I commit to the American people is to keep patients the center of health care,” Price told Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) during his confirmation hearing when asked whether he would wait for a replacement plan before implementing Trump’s regulatory order.
“What that means to me is making certain that every single American has access to affordable health coverage that will provide the highest quality health care that the world will provide.”