ACA Watch February 13, 2017
Price Confirmed as HHS Secretary
Tom Price (R-GA) was confirmed as the next secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) in the early hours of Friday, February 10.
After several committee hearings last month grilling the 62-year-old orthopedic surgeon and House Representative on his ethics and potential conflicts of interest, a vote was finally brought to the Senate for a 52-47 vote along party lines confirming Price. Votes by the chamber’s two Independents sided with the Democrats, but were not enough to tip the scales in favor of barring Price’s nomination (New York Times subscription required).
Leading up to the decision, Democrats from the Senate Finance Committee did not attend Price’s committee confirmation vote in an attempt to boycott the vote on grounds that he misled the public about his past stock market investments and that they wanted to question him further (ECFC). However, Committee Republicans were able pass a motion to suspend the committee rules requiring at least one Democrat to be present for the vote. Price’s confirmation cleared the committee with a 14-0 vote.
Price’s confirmation as HHS Secretary is an important step for the benefits, insurance, and health care industries to understand what sort of changes will be implemented in the years ahead. Republicans back Price on his merits of bringing a physician’s insights to a federal agency. Price will now be solely responsible for overseeing the agency with a budget of more than $1 trillion (Benefits Pro) that oversees one-fifth of the U.S. economy (NAHU).
Tremendous health care, lower price
Changes under Price could be swift and in alignment with GOP plans to repeal and replace the ACA. Price has historically been a major critic of government intervention in health care, believing that HHS has become “addicted to heavy-handed federal regulation and blind to problems spawned by the Affordable Care Act,” according to the New York Times. (subscription required)
President Trump remarked that Friday’s confirmation of Price will allow his administration to complete final steps in devising a health reform plan that can provide “tremendous health care at a lower price.” Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Senate health committee said that “Dr. Price has a thorough understanding of health care policy and the damage that Obamacare has caused.”
One of Price’s first challenges will be to stabilize insurance markets and decide a course to direct financial assistance for insurance companies who attest they have lost large amounts of money under ACA.
The Democrats and others remain deeply concerned about Price’s ethics and intentions. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said “people will look back and say that Republicans’ war on seniors began at 2 a.m. Friday morning when the Senate unfortunately confirmed Representative Price.”
Senator Angus King, (I-ME) had potent words after the confirmation; “To put somebody in charge of the Department of Health and Human Services that is inimical to Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act — this guy is a wrecking ball”.
Mr. King continued, “He is not a secretary. He is going into this agency to destroy it. He wants to undercut and diminish and, in some cases, literally destroy some of the major underpinnings of providing health care to people in this country.”
One step at a time: ACA repeal trudges forward
GOP Republicans stand firm with the assertion that the ACA will be repealed. But gray area remains in the “when” of this scenario.
President Donald Trump made comments alluding to ACA repeal being pushed to 2018. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) had far different input on the matter during a press conference last week, as reported by CNN and the Hill. Ryan’s stance has been consistent this year, asserting that “the legislating is going to be done this year,” and that “there was a little confusion” when President Trump set forth his timeline for ACA repeal “sometime next year.”
According to NAHU, the House Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce committees plan to have reconciliation legislation ready for a floor vote by the end of February. Speaker Ryan maintains his aggressive timeline for a “fast-track” ACA repeal by the end of March. Ryan also stated that it would take the GOP 2-3 years to implement the legislation. The reconciliation process cannot address the GOP’s other small replacement bills in the works, which will require agreement with Democrats via 60 Senate votes.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has submitted a proposal called Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; Market Stabilization for consideration by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Little is known about the details of Trump’s proposal. Some sources suggest Trump’s plan may focus on shifting costs to consumers, modifying eligibility requirements outside of standard enrollment periods, and permitting insurers to charge higher rates for the elderly.
A New York Times (subscription required) story leaked GOP discussions that suggest the party remains divided on the issue; struggling with which parts of the ACA to keep and which to eliminate. Trump helped set a goal for ACA reform when he said the GOP plan would provide “better health care for more people at a lesser cost,” which sounds like a win-win. However, Republicans recognize the technical complexity of this task and are carefully considering the political ramifications of their choices, as well. One such decision will be whether to withdraw funding from the health provider Planned Parenthood.
No matter what happens, the Confirmation of Tom Price to his role as HHS Secretary will almost certainly expedite key decisions and determine an implementation timeline for any ACA repeal legislation passed by Congress.
As a long-time member of the Employers Council for Flexible Compensation (ECFC), Employee Benefits Corporation will continue to provide ACA Watch updates as legislation continues to evolve.
Along with other ECFC representatives, Employee Benefits Corporation will attend Capitol Hill meetings with legislators to advocate for tax-advantaged benefits. This year’s ECFC Conference falls on March 8-10, at a critical juncture for health care reform.