Senate confirms Price as HHS head in party line vote

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(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Senate confirmed Tom Price to head the Department of Health and Human Services, a post where he’ll have a leading role in Republican efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and implement its replacement, and oversee a budget of more than $1 trillion.

The vote at 2 a.m. on Friday was 52-47, making Price the most contentious nominee for the position since President Jimmy Carter’s administration. Democrats opposed him because of his free-market, limited-government views on how the American healthcare system should operate and his past efforts to privatize Medicare by turning it into a voucher system. They also strongly criticized him for leaving questions unanswered about stock purchases in medical companies he made while handling healthcare legislation.

“President Trump is setting up his cabinet to run our country in a way that benefits those at the top and their allies, but really hurts the workers and families we all serve,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) on the Senate floor during Thursday’s debate on Price. “It’s hard to imagine who in America would be better off under Congressman Price’s leadership at HHS.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) backed the nominee, who was an orthopedic surgeon before being elected to Congress.

“Dr. Price has extensive insight into our nation’s healthcare system, having practiced medicine for two decades in a variety of settings,” Hatch said. He “will put this vast experience to good use and be decisive not only in working with Congress to find solutions but implementing them.”

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Democrats have been trying to delay Trump’s remaining Cabinet picks on the Senate floor, although they don’t have the votes to block them. After Price, the Senate will turn to efforts to confirm Steven Mnuchin—another nominee that Democrats accuse of not telling the full truth during hearings—to lead the Treasury Department. It took a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence to confirm Betsy DeVos as head of the Education Department in a 51-50 vote on Tuesday. And Jeff Sessions was confirmed as attorney general by a vote of 52-47 on Wednesday.

Seema Verma, Trump’s pick to lead the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, will face a confirmation hearing next Thursday at the Senate Finance Committee, which is chaired by Hatch. Other HHS agencies include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health.

Price has served in the U.S. House representing Georgia since 2004. In 2015, he introduced legislation to replace Obamacare that featured tax credits to help people buy insurance on the private market, expanded use of health savings accounts, and federal funds for states to create high-risk pools to cover the very sick and those with pre-existing conditions.

While Price’s plan generally espouses the principles Republicans embrace surrounding health coverage, GOP members of Congress have yet to unite around a specific proposal or even whether they will make wholesale changes to Obamacare or repair what they consider flawed. The timing is also uncertain—while Trump said last month he’d put forward his plans for replacing the law once Price is confirmed, he told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly in an interview that aired Sunday that the process could stretch into 2018.

Trump has said he wants “insurance for everybody” though Price repeatedly said during a Senate hearing in January that he wants to ensure “every single American has access to affordable health coverage.”

“We should all be cautious about being promised access without any pathway towards the ability to actually afford quality healthcare,” said Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.).

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