Rep. Tom Price gets into an elevator at Trump Tower in New York City on Nov. 16. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Louise Radnofsky and Peter Nicholas
WASHINGTON—President-elect Donald Trump has chosen top officials for health-care policy, picking House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R., Ga.) as secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, the sprawling agency that will likely dismantle Democrats’ 2010 health-care overhaul.
Mr. Trump on Tuesday also named Seema Verma, a longtime adviser to Vice president Elect Mike Pence, as the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. That agency oversees insurance programs for 100 million Americans as well as key aspects of the Affordable Care Act.
Mr. Price, a 62-year-old former orthopedic surgeon, is one of several GOP physicians who sought to carve out a leading role in shaping the party’s health policy and, in particular, the party’s alternative vision to Democrats’ Affordable Care Act.
Much of his criticism of the law has centered on the authority it gives to the federal government, and to the agency that he may now head.
“We think it’s important that Washington not be in charge of health care,” the six-term congressman said in an interview this summer. “The problem that I have with Obamacare is that its premise is that Washington knows best.”
Mr. Price has championed his own legislation, the Empowering Patients First Act, since 2009, taking a position on a number of hot-button issues for conservative health policy thinkers. In its latest iteration, the proposal includes refundable, age-adjusted tax credits for people to buy insurance if they don’t have access to coverage through an employer or government program. People in a government program, such as Medicare, Medicaid or Tricare, would also be allowed to opt out of it and get tax credits toward the cost of private coverage instead.
Mr. Price had previously included tax deductions in his plans, a tool typically favored by harder-line conservative health-policy thinkers, but said he had “moved towards credits because we felt it was cleaner.”
The plan offers a one-time credit aimed at boosting health-savings accounts, long described by supporters as a way of bringing down medical spending, and derives part of its funding from capping how much employers can spend on providing employee health care before being taxed. The plan seeks to make health insurance available to individuals with pre-existing medical conditions by helping states set up new “high-risk” pools or other programs for such enrollees, and sets new rules allowing insurers to sell policies across state lines.
But Mr. Price, whose rise in the congressional ranks began at the conservative Republican Study Committee and then steadily climbed, has already said he is open to compromise with fellow GOP lawmakers on many points.
“There’s a genuine desire to have us coalesce around a single plan so that the American people can see who’s trying to solve these challenges,” he said in June. “I wouldn’t draw any lines in the sand other than that the path that we’re on doesn’t work.” Soon after, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) announced that House Republicans led by Mr. Price and three other committee chairmen had reached agreement on a unified proposal, “A Better Way” that included some of Mr. Price’s ideas.
Mr. Price spent a 20-year medical career in Atlanta, where he also undertook his residency. He went into state politics when Republicans were still a minority in Georgia. After they took control, he became the first Republican Senate Majority Leader in the history of the state, he says in his official biography.
In the U.S. House, where he has served since 2005, Mr. Price has voted consistently against federal funding of abortion, and in opposition to federal requirements that insurance plans cover contraception without out-of-pocket costs as part of the Affordable Care Act.
As a Georgia state senator, Mr. Price had voted for a state requirement that insurance companies cover contraception in their prescription-drug plans. The difference, he said when asked about it in 2012, was Washington. “The issue here…is whether or not the federal government ought to be deciding what health coverage is,” Mr. Price said.
If he is confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Price’s duties will include overseeing a 78,000-employee department whose responsibilities go far beyond the Affordable Care Act. They include running the Medicare insurance program for the elderly, overseeing the Medicaid insurance program for low-income Americans, funding medical research at the National Institutes of Health, operating the Food and Drug Administration, and advocating for public health with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ms. Verma, 46 years old, is a consultant who helped Mr. Pence negotiate a groundbreaking deal with the Obama administration to expand Medicaid in Indiana in exchange for conservative concessions. She has aided other conservative states seeking similar arrangements with Washington. She also must be confirmed by the Senate.
The repeal of the 2010 health law, long sought by Republicans, will likely fall to the White House and Mr. Price’s GOP colleagues in Congress in the first instance. In their first days in office, Mr. Trump could take executive action to void parts of the law, destabilizing it. Congressional Republicans could then use their majorities in both chambers to strike larger swaths through budget moves.
The Department of Health and Human Services is likely to have an influential role over those strategic decisions, but its largest task will be in managing their repercussions and working with legislators seeking to enact alternative measures to replace the law.
Republicans across the administration and in Congress will have to grapple with how ambitious to be in their reworking of health policy, and, in particular, whether to attempt to include major changes to Medicare and Medicaid as part of their bid to replace the Affordable Care Act.
Write to Louise Radnofsky at firstname.lastname@example.org and Peter Nicholas at email@example.com