Congress may have stalled out in deadlock over changes to our healthcare system but the executive branch is moving full steam ahead.  How will the resignation of HHS Secretary Tom Price affect its course?

While Congress continues to wrestle over the Affordable Care Act, the Trump administration has been moving to roll back Obama-era regulations and loosen federal oversight over sectors of the health care industry – thrilling some stakeholders and worrying others as the Department of Health and Human Services requests input on regulatory reform. In his short time as HHS Secretary, Tom Price took steps to end mandatory programs making providers more accountable for their patients’ health; slow the transition to a system that pays doctors based on quality rather than quantity; and indicated HHS will reverse a high-profile rule blocking nursing homes from forcing residents to sign away their right to sue. Click here for more from Politico

Whether HHS is friendly or antagonistic to the ACA could determine its success. There was no question where the department stood under Secretary Price, as he dramatically cut advertising related to ACA open enrollment and funding for the navigator program; shortened to six weeks this year’s open enrollment period; and kept insurers guessing on payments of CSRs.

But Dr. Price resigned as HHS Secretary on Friday and the hunt for a new Secretary is on.  Trump’s nominee to oversee the nation’s health programs – including Medicare, Medicaid and the FDA – with a budget of $1.15 trillion, is likely to face intense scrutiny about the future of the law known as Obamacare in a very public interview process during one of the most tumultuous times for the industry in modern history.  Any takers?

One name tops most lists: CMS Administrator Seema Verma is a close ally of Vice President Mike Pence and she was a fixture on Capitol Hill during the repeal-and-replace debate.  However, the short list will likely grow.  At present, more than a dozen other names are being bandied about, with personalities and experience running the gambit, from obvious contender to dark horse candidate. If past is prologue, the list will be anything but static.  Some of the names we’ve been hearing in recent days:

  • Don Wright, HHS bureaucrat; was named acting HHS secretary Friday following Price’s resignation
  • Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, Food and Drug Administration
  • Bobby Jindal, former Louisiana governor (R-LA)
  • Secretary David Shulkin, Veterans Affairs
  • Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY)
  • Sen. Rick Santorum, former Senator (R-PA) and presidential candidate
  • Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI)
  • Sen. Judd Gregg, former Senator (R-NH)
  • Rep. Dave Camp, former Member (R-MI) and chair of the Ways and Means Committee
  • Rep. Fred Upton, (R-MI), former chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee
  • Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN)
  • Dr. Mehmet Oz
  • Sen. Bill Cassidy, (R-LA)
  • Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL)
  • Secretary Ben Carson, Housing and Urban Development

President Trump’s selection of a new Secretary of Health and Human Services will most certainly face the prospect of an arduous confirmation battle, even if the individual he chooses has already been vetted or confirmed for another post.

It’s not clear if the administration will change its approach to the ACA now that the repeal push has been sidetracked and lawmakers are shifting their primary legislative focus to a tax overhaul. It could be months before dismantling the law is again at the center of attention on Capitol Hill. However, there is consensus that deregulation will continue to be a constant theme, and while perhaps at a slowed pace due to the transition, the industry will continue to face evolving regulations that will dictate how they can run their business.

Just last week, HHS published a draft strategic plan that sets a direction for the department for the next five years, which reflects Secretary Price’s economic and socially conservative principles.  Absent from the plan is any reference to its responsibility to carry out provisions of the Affordable Care Act.  Will the new Secretary keep the plan?  Will enough Price loyalists remain to carry it out?

The President’s choice could represent a significant shift in a health care debate that has polarized Washington for nearly a decade or it could further exacerbate the fundamental division and cement the two opposing sides in place for the foreseeable future.

Did we miss any potential candidates? Let us know at submissions@capitolvitals.com.

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Charla Penn is a Principal at Winning Strategies Washington, a DC-based government relations firm. Charla spent several years on Capitol Hill working for members of the Ways & Means Committee with a focus on health care.

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