Newly confirmed HHS Secretary Tom Price likely will spend his first few days focusing on efforts to stabilize the individual health insurance market as Republicans work to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
Following the pattern of strictly party-line votes on two previous nominees—Attorney General-designate Sen. Jeff Sessions and Betsy DeVos for education secretary—the former congressman from Georgia was approved on a 52-47 vote.
“(Price) can now get to work and focus on the task of replacing the failed Obamacare with sustainable, free-market principles,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said in a statement.
Two days earlier, the Senate had voted to move forward Price's nomination on a 51-48 party line cloture vote.
Senate Democrats boycotted the nomination, prompting Republicans to suspend the rules and vote on his nomination with no Democrats present.
Patient advocacy groups have been concerned about the former legislator's efforts to repeal the ACA.
“With this vote, Senate Republicans have placed the fate of the nation's healthcare system in the hands of a man whose stated goal is to dismantle its very pillars and leave millions of people to the mercies of the insurance industry,” Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, said in a statement.
Price has to figure out how to keep insurers in the market for 2018 to avoid a meltdown that could leave 20 million people without coverage. Insurance industry leaders say they need greater certainty about market rules before they decide this spring whether to offer plans and how to price them.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump is counting on the staunchly conservative former orthopedic surgeon to lead the effort to draft an ACA replacement plan, while also taking steps to dismantle the law through administrative measures.
HHS already has a draft rule in the works that reportedly responds to insurance industry requests for changes such as greater leeway to charge older consumers higher premiums. Price may be torn between a Trump administration executive order calling for rolling back ACA enforcement and pressure from insurers to preserve rules such as the individual mandate that keeps younger and healthier people in the market.
“Decisive action from HHS may be the only thing that can prevent a death spiral in the individual market, and even then, uncertainty about repeal, replace or repair may be too much for HHS to overcome,” said Morgan Tilleman, an attorney with Foley & Lardner in its heath insurance practice.