Policy

HHS Nominee Might Not Be Confirmed Until Mid-February, Says Senator

Alexander’s timeline pushes Obamacare repeal and replace toward March

Sen. Lamar Alexander is chairman of the Senate HELP Committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Even as senators began grinding through a budget resolution that sets up a repeal of the 2010 health care law, the timeline for striking President Barack Obama’s biggest legislative legacy appeared to be slipping.

President-elect Donald Trump said at a news conference Wednesday in New York City that a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act would come once Secretary of Health and Human Services nominee Rep. Tom Price of Georgia wins confirmation.

But the chairman of a key committee involved in both the repeal-replace process and in confirming Price said his confirmation may not take place until around the President’s Day recess in February.

Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that will hear from Price on Jan. 18, delivered the assessment during the vote-a-rama on a fiscal 2017 budget resolution, a sequence of continuous amendment votes that will run late into the night and lay the groundwork for legislation repealing the health law.

“We will have a courtesy hearing next week with Dr. Price in the HELP Committee. Finance will hear him soon after that, and I would expect he would be confirmed at least by mid-February,” Alexander said.

He suggested that the February recess would be “pretty good timing.” It is the Finance Committee that has primary responsibility for the Health and Human Services nomination, since it has jurisdiction over taxes and entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

“Most of what we’re talking about is in order to lower costs, we’d like to move more decisions out of Washington back to the states, and we can’t do that without consulting extensively with the governors. They’re all going to be here Feb. 19 through 22. The timing’s very good,” Alexander said. “They’ll be meeting with us to get their opinions, and then we can start moving ahead step-by-step.”

As a former governor of Tennessee, Alexander is likely among the lawmakers most interested in hearing from state officials, many of whom will have concerns about how Congress and Trump address existing expansions of Medicaid under Obamacare that numerous states opted to partake in.

Price would, under such a scenario, likely not present the Trump administration plan to repeal-and-replace Obamacare until the beginning of March, at the earliest.

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Price, a physician and Georgia Republican, is chairman of the House Budget Committee and a member of the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee. His trading of health care stocks in industries he oversees has drawn the attention of ethics experts and will likely come up during confirmation hearings, though the Trump transition team says he intends to comply fully with laws and ethics rules regarding personal investments.

Alexander dismissed a suggestion that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to prioritize confirming Trump’s national security team was creating delays for Price and the health law rollback.

“I would say it would only add a couple of weeks to Price’s confirmation, and we can use that time to make sure that we’re doing it right. I mean the American people don’t want a quick fix. They want us to do something that will last and that will help every American over the long term,” Alexander said. “We’re starting tonight with step one of repeal-and-replace, but we’re not going to repeal anything until we have concrete, practical alternatives in place for the American people.”

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