- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2017

Rep. Tom Price was confirmed early Friday, 52-47, by the Senate, after surviving yet another Democratic onslaught against a Trump nomination.

President Trump’s new health secretary already has a massive to-do list built up, with the White House saying it was awaiting his arrival to roll out a replacement for Obamacare, and to begin taking steps to ease the transition.

Republicans say Mr. Price, a 62-year-old doctor from Georgia, is the “perfect choice” to run the Health and Human Services Department and its $1 trillion-plus budget. An orthopedic surgeon by trade, he’ll oversee agencies that insure roughly 120 million poor, disabled and elderly Americans, approve life-saving drugs and beat back global health scares like Ebola and Zika.

Yet carrying out the GOP’s plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act will be his primary task, starting with regulatory changes designed to stabilize the Obamacare exchanges and reassure insurers who’ve threatened to withdraw from the marketplace.

Health insurers want clarity from Capitol Hill, where Republicans had blamed Mr. Price’s protracted nomination for holding up their plans.

“We’re relying on him for a lot of the confirmation on the ‘repeal,’ ‘repair’ and ‘replace.’ He’s the perfect one to do it, he’s a medical doctor that’s had a wide range of experience,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi, the Wyoming Republican who is assembling GOP ideas for repeal into fast-track budget legislation that can bypass a Democratic filibuster.

Having Mr. Price in place means the clock is now ticking on the GOP’s plans, which remain murky.

“They are out of excuses. If they do not have the defund-repeal accomplished by the end of March, they will have to admit the entire repeal and replace strategy is off the rails,” said Robert Laszewski, a health policy consultant in Alexandria, Virginia.

Mr. Trump initially suggested he was working on his own plan with his HHS pick, to which Mr. Price quipped: “It’s true he said that, yes.”

The president now says the effort could stretch into next year, though House leaders said he was referring to the implementation of their joint plans.

Some conservatives are growing impatient, warning their constituents will revolt if Republicans don’t kill off the health care law soon.

Pro-life advocates are also counting on Mr. Price to carve religious employers out of Obamacare’s contraception rules, while GOP-led states will look for greater flexibility under Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program for the poor.

Democrats say Republicans should protect or fix what’s in place, so they don’t upend the market protections and taxpayer-subsidized plans that millions have latched onto under Obamacare.

“Our worry is that we are on the precipice of repealing an act which has saved thousands of lives, which has insurance 20 million people. And the result will be health care chaos for everyone, whether they are not the Affordable Care Act or not,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, Connecticut Democrat.

Democrats might have been able to block Mr. Price and other nominees if Democrats hadn’t triggered the so-called “nuclear option” in 2013, changing the rules to eviscerate the power of the filibuster to block Cabinet nominees.

Mr. Price’s confirmation would make him just the eighth Cabinet-level official approved by the Senate, nearly three weeks into Mr. Trump’s tenure. Both Presidents Obama and George W. Bush had seven nominees approved on their first day in office.

Democrats have been putting each of Mr. Trump’s nominees through all of the procedural hoops, dragging out the process and highlighting potential cracks between Mr. Trump’s vows to working class voters and his wealthy Cabinet picks.

For instance, Mr. Trump blasted Obamacare on the campaign trail, though he promised to leave other health entitlements alone.

Yet Mr. Price, as House budget chairman, wrote plans that would cap federal spending on Medicaid benefits for the poor by turning them into block grants to the states, while replacing Medicare’s open-ended benefit for seniors with a “premium-support” model.

“He wants to privatize Medicare, he wants to voucher-ize it,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat.

Mr. Price’s views on Medicare scared off red-state Senate Democrats who might have bucked their party and voted for him, even though the nominee testified that Mr. Trump has no plans to touch Medicare.

Democrats also questioned Mr. Price’s integrity, pointing to a slew of health-related stock purchases he made, even as acted on legislation that could affect those firms.

Republicans rallied around Mr. Price, saying he followed House disclosure rules and that Democrats were grasping at straws to delay the process.

“My colleagues’ specious arguments and their desperate attempts to block Dr. Price’s confirmation would all seem far more sincere if he was the one nominee that they deemed unfit to serve,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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