Sunday, December 17, 2017
Opinion

Column: Trump's new Cabinet pick is bad news for Obamacare and Medicare

Donald Trump's transition team says that the president-elect has selected Georgia Rep. Tom Price as secretary of Health and Human Services. The move sends two very loud messages. First, the incoming White House is dead serious about scrapping the Affordable Care Act. Second, it may well be open to ending Medicare as we know it.

Price, a former orthopedic surgeon who chairs the House Budget Committee, has not merely been a strident critic of Obamacare, saying that it interferes with the ability of patients and doctors to make medical decisions; he's also authored a 242-page bill to replace it. The legislation would entirely eliminate the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion and give extremely modest, age-based tax credits to Americans who need to buy insurance. It's parsimonious even by the standards of Republican replacement proposals. (Vox has a detailed analysis at http://tbtim.es/repealreplace.)

This past June, however, Price signed on to House Speaker Paul Ryan's own replacement proposal, unveiled as part of the GOP's "A Better Way Platform," which in theory might be a better-funded if still deeply conservative approach to health reform. For example, Price's plan would have spent $3 billion to fund high-risk insurance pools for Americans with pre-existing conditions for just three years. Ryan's plan would spend $25 billion over a decade, and make the pools permanent.

Price is similarly keen on Ryan's plan to transform Medicare by turning it into a voucher system, where the government would give seniors money that they could use to purchase private insurance. He included those changes in his 2015 budget, and recently told reporters that he expected Republicans to tackle Medicare "reform" some time in 2017.

As Health and Human Services secretary, Price would ultimately be in charge of administering programs like Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, and presumably serve as Trump's point man on health policy. Given that the president-elect is by all accounts a deeply impressionable man with little to no policy expertise, Price is almost certainly set to play an extremely influential role in any negotiations over health care legislation.

Aside from steering the administration's legislative priorities, Price will be able to meddle with Obamacare directly using his powers as secretary. As Margaret Hartmann notes at New York magazine, the man is notoriously opposed to the federal regulation that requires insurers cover contraceptives at zero cost and could undo it by using the administrative process to rewrite some of Obamacare's rules.

Trump briefly seemed to soften his stance on the Affordable Care Act after meeting with President Barack Obama this month, suggesting that he might like to keep some of the law's key provisions, like rules banning insurers from discriminating against patients with pre-existing conditions. But with Price's selection, any hope that the White House might resist the House GOP's minimalist approach to reform seems to be dead.

His presence in the Cabinet also seriously calls into question Trump's early campaign promises not to cut Medicare, which helped distinguish him from the rest of the Republican pack among elderly voters deeply attached to their health benefits. As the saying goes, personnel is policy.

Jordan Weissmann is Slate's senior business and economics correspondent. © 2016 Slate

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