Tom Price’s resignation as Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary creates a big leadership void at the top of the department tasked with administering a health law Republicans hate.
President Trump accepted the embattled secretary’s resignation Friday on the heels of Politico reports detailing how Price’s travel on military and charter jet flights had cost taxpayers more than $1 million since May.
“I have spent forty years both as a doctor and public servant putting people first,” Price said in his resignation letter. “I regret that the recent events have created a distraction from these important objectives.”
Price’s resignation also follows the GOP’s latest failure to repeal and replace ObamaCare, which Trump had wanted accomplished quickly earlier in the year.
Here are five questions about what comes next:
Who is taking over?
Dr. Don Wright, a career official at HHS, will serve as acting HHS secretary effective Saturday. Wright has served as the acting assistant secretary for health at HHS since February after joining the agency in 2007, according to HHS’s website.
He’s held a number of positions during his tenure at HHS, including deputy assistant secretary for health and director of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
During his time at HHS, Wright oversaw the national dietary guidelines and the department’s health literacy agenda.
He also represented the U.S. at the World Health Organization executive board.
Prior to joining HHS, Wright worked for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Before he started working for the government, he worked for 15 years in the private sector at a clinic and consulting practice in Texas.
What comes next on ObamaCare?
Congressional Republicans won’t be voting to repeal ObamaCare anytime soon. That’s because the vehicle they were using to repeal President Obama’s signature health law without requiring a single Democratic vote expires Saturday.
The focus will now be on how HHS implements the health law.
ObamaCare supporters and local groups tasked with enrolling consumers in the exchanges, known as navigators, are openly frustrated with the administration.
Democrats are arguing that the White House is blatantly sabotaging the law. They point to the administration’s decision to shorten the open enrollment window by half. In late August, HHS announced it was slashing advertising funding by 90 percent and cutting funding for navigator groups by 41 percent.
Open enrollment begins Nov. 1.
Who could replace Price permanently?
Several names have been reported as possibilities for taking over Price’s job.
One is Seema Verma, who heads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. She was an architect of several state-tailored Medicaid waivers, notably Indiana’s Medicaid expansion program when Vice President Pence was governor. Several Democrats joined Republicans to confirm Verma in a 55 to 43 Senate vote.
Verma was also dispatched to the Hill during the Senate’s ObamaCare repeal bill effort in attempts to smooth over intra-party divisions over how to tackle Medicaid.
Another name being floated is Scott Gottlieb, the Food and Drug Administration commissioner. A handful of Democrats also supported Gottlieb’s nomination.
Politico also noted that Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin was rumored to be a possible replacement, but Shullkin has had questionable travel expense of his own.
Before Trump nominated Price, a short-list of candidates for the HHS job included Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and former New Jersey state Sen. Rich Bagger, according to a list obtained by Buzzfeed.
What will the confirmation process be like?
It’s unclear when Trump plans to nominate Price’s replacement. But Price’s resignation is setting up a potentially nasty confirmation process in the Senate.
Democrats have accused the Trump administration of trying to sabotage ObamaCare and whomever is nominated will likely be asked about how they would handle the law.
“Throughout his brief time leading the Department of Health and Human Services, Tom Price has repeatedly abused the public trust and betrayed the agency’s mission to improve Americans’ health care,” Sen. Ron Wyden, ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement Friday.
“I hope that his resignation will mark the beginning of a new chapter for the Trump administration’s health care agenda. Tom Price’s replacement needs to be focused on implementing the law as written by Congress and keeping the president’s promise to bring down the high cost of prescription drugs.”
Democrats were opposed to Price’s confirmation, mostly because of questions about his stock trades and investments, which they said were a conflict of interest.
In protest, Democrats didn’t show up to the Finance Committee’s confirmation hearing, and Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) used a procedural maneuver to push through the nomination. He could likely do that again if Democrats don’t show up.
The whole process took a little less than three months, and it’s unlikely this one will move any faster.
That means HHS is unlikely to have a permanent health secretary in time for ObamaCare’s fifth open enrollment season.
Will Price still pay for his charter seats?
Price said he would pay $52,000 to the U.S. Treasury for the cost of his seats on the private charter planes. That’s a small amount compared to the more than $1 million he reportedly racked up.
But there are also questions about whether he still plans to pay that money back.
“Wait… did we get our money back first?” asked Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.)
Price, who was worth more than $8 million in January according to his nomination disclosure forms, didn’t mention the money in his resignation letter.