Around 2 a.m., the Senate voted along party lines to confirm Representative Tom Price to become Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. The vote was 52-47 with no Democrats voting in favor. With repeated attacks on his policy record and questions about stock purchases, Price’s nomination was among the most controversial of President Trump’s cabinet selections. With Price in place, now comes the work to fill out other key roles at HHS and develop the administrative process repeal and replace of Obamacare.
Senate Democrats delayed the confirmation vote for Price for the full 30 hours allowed under the rule to focus on his conservative record and promise to eliminate Obamacare. To put things into a bit of perspective, here are the votes for the two previous HHS Secretaries under President Obama: Sylvia Burwell, 78-17 and Kathleen Sebelius, 65-31. For President Bush, in 2005 it was Michael Levitt by VOICE VOTE and in 2001, Tommy Thompson skated by 100-0.
Despite having a far more difficult road to the Hubert Humphrey Building (HHS HQ), Secretary-Designate Price has promised the first order of business is to help Congress with the effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. HHS is a key player in providing direction about what the Administration can do to provide stability after repeal, particularly in the context of a transition period between repeal and replace.
Next up for the Senate is the nomination of Seema Verma to lead the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). CMS plays an important role not only in the “replace” of Obamacare, but in efforts to reform Medicare reimbursement as wells as changes to Medicaid in the states. While there are no controversies around Ms. Verma, expect Democrats to press her on the Medicaid reforms in Indiana as well her plans with respect to Obamacare. The Senate Finance Committee has scheduled a hearing for 10 a.m. on February 16th.
Even with movement on the CMS nominee, there are several key healthcare posts that remain unfilled: FDA (though two names – former FDA deputy commissioner for policy Scott Gottleib and Jim O’Neill of Mithril Capital Management – continue to be apparent frontrunners), Heath Resource & Services Administration, National Institutes of Health, and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. There is no timetable for filling these positions, but now that the Senate has cleared Price and has started action on Verma, it is possible that the others will start moving.
The confirmation of Price was a very important step for health care policy in 2017, but it is just the beginning. We will be watching developments closely.