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Next health secretary could set course for insurance system

Mary Ellen McIntire, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Health & Fitness

WASHINGTON -- With the health care debate sidelined on Capitol Hill, the next Health and Human Services secretary will have the ability to determine the Trump administration's approach on the current health care law.

Despite seven years of promises, Republicans have been unable to roll back the 2010 health care law as they'd planned before the end of September. The vacancy created by Tom Price's resignation last week as secretary amid scrutiny of his private jet use added another challenge to a politically divisive battle.

Now, Price's successor will be able to put his or her own mark on the law that has been assailed by President Donald Trump as a disaster. Trump's nominee to oversee the nation's health programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, and a budget of about $1 trillion is likely to face intense scrutiny about the future of the law known as Obamacare during confirmation hearings before the Senate Finance Committee.

"Dr. Tom Price's resignation is truly unfortunate, especially during this time when our nation's approach to health care policy is so divided," Finance Chairman Sen. Orrin G. Hatch said in a statement provided to CQ Roll Call.

With lawmakers 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 -- even as some lawmakers express hope to roll back the law before the 115th Congress ends.

Trump has suggested he would let the law collapse to bring Democrats to the negotiating table. After a recent bipartisan effort in the Senate, some lawmakers have said the president is ready to work across the aisle on health care.

Whether HHS is friendly or antagonistic to the law could determine its success. For example, when the administration cut off advertising for HealthCare.gov in the final week of open enrollment in January, officials who had overseen the marketplaces during the Obama administration said it would decrease the number of people signing up for coverage in the final enrollment stretch.

Meanwhile, Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., have restarted efforts to craft a bipartisan plan to bring more stability to the individual market.

It's not clear if the administration will change its approach to the law now that the repeal push has been sidetracked. One key indicator is whether the administration continues to reimburse insurers for the law's cost-sharing reduction payments. Trump has continued the payments on a month-by-month basis, but hasn't laid out a long-term plan.

Republicans have said that parts of the law that Congress could not repeal through the fast-track budget reconciliation process could be addressed by HHS, such as taking a look at certain regulations put in place by the Obama administration.

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