Choice of new health secretary may offer clue to Trump’s next move on health law

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s resignation leaves a void in the Trump Cabinet.
Andrew Harnik/Associated Press/File 2017
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s resignation leaves a void in the Trump Cabinet.

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s selection of a secretary of health and human services could be a turning point in a health care debate that has polarized Washington, as he faces a choice of working with Democrats to fix the current system or continuing his so-far failed efforts to dismantle his predecessor’s program.

The resignation of Tom Price as secretary late Friday over his use of costly chartered jets capped a week of setbacks on health care for a president who made the issue a centerpiece of his campaign and his first eight months in office.

Trump’s decision on a successor could be an opportunity to shift the debate, but he faces the prospect of an arduous confirmation battle.


The president has sent mixed signals since the latest effort to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act collapsed in the Senate.

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He has asserted that he has the votes to pass the repeal legislation and will try again in early 2018, while also saying he wanted to negotiate with Democrats who are adamantly against it.

Many will look to his choice for a secretary to see whether he wants to continue the battle or find a compromise.

Democrats urged him to use the moment to change course. “Let’s get a new HHS secretary who’s finally devoted to improving health care, move past these debates and come to bipartisan agreement on how to stabilize markets and make health care cheaper,” said Senator Christopher Murphy of Connecticut.

Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said Price’s departure could begin “a new chapter for the Trump administration’s health care agenda.”


The White House had no comment Saturday, but the two most frequently mentioned candidates to succeed Price are two officials who work in the department: Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

Both have previously been vetted by the White House, nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate to their current jobs within recent months, a significant selling point.

Other names have been floated as well, including David Shulkin, secretary of Veterans Affairs and a favorite of the president’s, but he has been criticized for a European trip with his wife that mixed business and sightseeing and was partly financed by taxpayers.

Some reports have floated former Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, an assistant secretary of health and human services under President George W. Bush. But he was a caustic critic of Trump during his own brief campaign for the White House that ended in late 2015 after he called the future president a “narcissist” and “egomaniacal madman.”

Trump may not necessarily fill the post quickly. He has left the Department of Homeland Security in the hands of an acting secretary since John Kelly left in July to become White House chief of staff.


The president appears to be in no rush despite a series of hurricanes and a roiling immigration debate, issues managed by the department. He said Friday that he would make a decision “probably within a month.”

‘Let’s get a new HHS secretary who’s finally devoted to improvinghealth care.’

If Trump picks Verma to succeed Price at the Department of Health and Human Services, it would be taken as a sign among many that he wants to continue vigorous opposition to the Affordable Care Act, with the government doing the minimum required by the law to implement its provisions.

Verma, an ally of Vice President Mike Pence, worked closely this year with Republicans in Congress on their proposals to undo the law and to cut Medicaid, the program for more than 70 million low-income people.

Still, some progressives have interpreted her work under the health care law in Indiana, where Pence was governor, to mean that while she opposed the Affordable Care Act, she was committed to finding ways to enforce it if it remained on the books.

Gottlieb has more experience in Washington and was seen at the time of his appointment as the more moderate of candidates being considered.

In his first months at the FDA, he has deftly balanced the concerns of patients and pharmaceutical companies, while taking steps to combat the opioid epidemic and speed access to lower-cost generic drugs.