In announcing the nomination of Georgia orthopedic surgeon and congressman Tom Price as Health and Human Services secretary, Donald Trump sent an important signal about his incoming administration’s desire to undertake major efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, along with other entitlement reforms. However, Price’s nomination also illustrates why those efforts face a difficult road to passage and enactment.
As news of the Price appointment leaked out late on Monday evening, reporters spent much of their time breathlessly analyzing Dr. Price’s health-care legislation—H.R. 2300, the Empowering Patients First Act—for clues as to what it might mean for the replace effort. However, Price’s bill may be more noteworthy for what it does not include than what it does:
- Any premium support plan for Medicare reform;
- Any reform of Medicaid—whether block grants or per capita caps; and
- Any spending reductions to fund the refundable portion of tax credits Price proposes as an alternative to Obamacare’s insurance subsidies.
In other words, despite releasing a 243-page health-care bill, Price, along with his Republican colleagues in Congress, hasn’t translated into legislative specifics his policy positions on many, if not most, of the important health-care issues the Republican Congress will face next year. For instance:
- How should a premium support system under Medicare be structured? Should payments to seniors be based upon the average plan bid, the lowest plan bid, or another formula? How quickly should those payments rise in future years?
- How quickly should Medicaid block grants, or per capita caps, rise in future years?
- Should an Obamacare repeal-and-replace plan rely on pre-Obamacare levels of taxes and spending, or should it redirect existing Obamacare spending in a different direction?
Price’s legislation does not shed much light on these and other critically important questions that Congress will need to undertake next year.
Budget Gimmicks and Magic Asterisks
As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Price earlier this year released a budget blueprint that did include some ideas for entitlement reform. However, that document included only about four pages of proposals on Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare—some of which focused more on making the case against Obamacare than outlining the specifics of a Republican alternative. The Budget Committee did draft more specific (and non-binding) report language, but ultimately left the details of determining policy—as all budgets do—to the committees of jurisdiction, namely House Ways and Means and House Energy and Commerce.
More importantly, even though the Republican budget document said it “gets rid of all of Obamacare,” that’s not what it did. The budget, like those issued by House Speaker Paul Ryan when he was Budget Committee chairman, assumes Obamacare’s higher levels of taxes and lower levels of Medicare spending to achieve balance within the decade. Either the budget doesn’t repeal all of Obamacare, or it assumes that Congress, after repealing Obamacare, would go back and re-enact equivalent levels of tax increases and Medicare spending reductions.
It’s particularly noteworthy that Price’s Empowering Patients First Act, which proposes a new refundable tax credit, includes only one idea to pay for said credit—a cap on the tax deductibility of employer-sponsored health coverage. Although administered through the tax code, refundable credits are considered for budgetary purposes government spending—Washington writing “refund” checks to individuals and families with no income tax liability.
While it’s difficult to determine without a Congressional Budget Office score to his bill, one could argue the chairman of the House Budget Committee proposed raising taxes (the cap on deducting employer-sponsored health coverage) to pay for new spending (the refundable portion of the tax credit/insurance subsidy).
None of these omissions by Price suggest he lacks an intricate knowledge of health policy—far from it. In fact, to the extent Price has purposefully avoided many of the political minefields omnipresent in health policy, that public silence makes his Senate confirmation more likely.
But it also illustrates the extent of the obstacles Republicans face. If one of the few conservatives in Congress with an interest in, and knowledge of, health care achieved that reputation in part by avoiding tough choices, what will Republicans do when they have to make those difficult decisions—and trust me, they will have to—without him next year?
Legislating vs. Implementing
As chair of the House Budget Committee, and with a seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, Price would have been uniquely placed to influence a legislative debate on health care in the 115th Congress. Most of the legislative proposals—whether to repeal and replace Obamacare, or reform entitlements—will likely occur through the budget reconciliation process, where the chairs of the House and Senate Budget Committees play a key role. Price was listed as the official sponsor of the reconciliation bill repealing Obamacare that President Obama vetoed earlier this year; his name would have similarly been on any repeal bill considered under reconciliation in 2017.
Given his influential perch in Congress, Price did not accept the HHS nomination because he intends to oversee the legislative process at a close distance. He will play a key role in liaising with Congress, no doubt, but perhaps more from a “big picture” perspective—working to persuade his former legislative colleagues—than by drafting minute details with Hill staff, Ryan, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Price’s nomination to HHS makes much more sense from an implementation standpoint—the opportunity to shape and mold the regulatory process. Price can lay the regulatory groundwork for repealing Obamacare and reforming entitlements. But the heavy lifting of policy will remain Congress’s purview, and Price’s record—both what it includes, and more importantly, what it excludes—illustrates that lift will be heavy indeed.
This article has been amended to reflect that Price has articulated legislative positions on Medicare premium support, albeit in his budget, not in H.R. 2300.