Why you should care
Because all eyes are on him to reshape Obamacare.
Shortly after the House of Representatives conducted the final legislative somersault to pass Obamacare in 2010, Fox News viewers tuning into an aggrieved Sean Hannity heard from a bespectacled surgeon. “This is the nail in the coffin for health care in the United States at this point,” Georgia Republican Rep. Tom Price said. Of the Democrats, he added: “They trust government; we trust people.” Nearly seven years later, Republicans finally have the power to dismantle the law they loathe, and they’re looking to Price again to help turn the slogans into substance.
Donald Trump’s pick for Health and Human Services secretary combines deep policy knowledge with a TV-friendly, relentlessly on-message “patients-first” pitch to sell a to-be-determined alternative. (Trump said he was waiting for Price to be confirmed to lead the 80,000-person bureaucracy before laying out the strategy; Price was confirmed Friday.) House Speaker Paul Ryan plans to rely on his longtime Capitol Hill breakfast partner to manage a complex unwinding that could take years. Price was unavailable for an interview as he navigated a grueling confirmation fight that delved into his personal finances and proposed changes to Medicare.
A Michigan native, Price, 62, first moved to Atlanta for his residency at Emory University before opening up an orthopedic surgery practice in the northern suburbs. He eventually helped launch Resurgens Orthopaedics, now the largest orthopedic surgery group in Georgia, making Price a multimillionaire. Steven Wertheim, a business partner, says Price showed managerial skill in uniting different practices to create Resurgens — and also struck up against governmental red tape in the process. From electronic medical records to protecting patient privacy, Wertheim says, the orthopedic group struggled with well-intentioned but overly complex and expensive mandates. Wertheim says about half of Resurgens’ 1,000 employees are devoted entirely to administrative work, not patient care. Such experiences lend Price credibility: “As a physician, he can say, ‘This rule, it sounds good, but this is not going to work in practice,’ ” Wertheim says.
In 1996, Price decided to run for a state senate seat. He vowed to bring the same “common-sense” approach to diagnosing policy problems as he did in medicine. Price comfortably won the primary and general. He became the state senate’s majority leader in 2003 — the first Republican ever to hold the post — and mastered the chamber’s arcane rules, finding himself in the middle of deals on a new state flag sans the Confederate battle emblem and a budget-balancing tobacco tax hike.
In 2004, Price’s local congressional district opened up when Johnny Isakson ran for Senate. He had to fend off two other GOP state senators but triumphed in a runoff; no Democrats contested the seat. Entering a Republican-run Washington, Price was quickly tapped as a rising star. He became known for an intense work ethic, strict conservative voting record, deep knowledge of health care policy and sharp-elbowed ambition. As Democrats swept into total power in 2009, Price took over chairmanship of the Republican Study Committee, the archconservative policy shop of the House GOP. His résumé and glib sound bites made him one of the faces of the Obamacare resistance. His reform plan gives tax credits based on age for people to buy insurance while stripping away Obamacare requirements like mandates for individuals to buy insurance and for insurers to offer minimum benefits including maternity care. With other Republican MDs in the House, Price helped find consensus on a badly needed reform of the Medicare physician payments system. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, he pushed Ryan-developed plans to remake Medicare into a voucher-like system and turn Medicaid over to the states, with block grants from the federal government. Democrats have seized on this in opposing Price, pressing him on whether he would cut funding from entitlement programs.
But the real heat in Price’s confirmation hearings came from controversies over his stock trades in health care companies affected by his policy actions. Foes seized upon two deals. The first was a purchase of $2,700 of stock in device maker Zimmer Biomet around the time Price introduced a bill to delay a planned new Medicare payment model for joint replacement. Analysts said the regulation Price sought to delay would hurt Zimmer Biomet; the company publicly supported it. Price has said a broker made the relatively small stock purchase — he is, after all, worth over $10 million, according to financial disclosures — without his knowledge.
The second: Price acknowledged personally buying discounted stock in multiple sclerosis drug maker Innate Immunotherapeutics, at the recommendation of another Republican congressman, Chris Collins of New York, who sits on its board. The purchase came months before Price and Collins voted for the final version of a law backed by the pharmaceutical industry that would speed drug development broadly. Yet Price had opposed the bill for most of the lawmaking process, and the Australia-based company says it will be largely unaffected. While there’s been no evidence presented of lawbreaking, Democrats still clamored for an ethics investigation. “This guy is buying stock and then writing legislation that affects the price of the stock,” Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, tells OZY. Price allies, meanwhile, are fuming. “It really bothered me, because Tom Price is as honest a human being as walks this Earth,” Rep. Phil Roe, a Tennessee Republican and fellow physician, tells OZY. Price has said he will divest of his health care investments once confirmed.
Until the Trump Administration tapped him for the new role, Price might have been bumping up against a glass ceiling — the kind that someone with a flat Midwestern accent and a surgeon’s cold precision strikes in the deep South. Price was never able to climb past the No. 5 post in leadership and never consummated rumors about running for the U.S. Senate. But he didn’t need to run for the Senate to clear it. In the wee hours Friday, the Senate confirmed Price on a party-line vote, after about 30 hours of Democratic delays and floor theatrics. Now comes the hard part.