Georgia U.S. Rep. Tom Price was sworn in as the 23rd secretary of health and human services Friday morning, less than 12 hours after senators voted to confirm the former orthopedic surgeon to the Cabinet-level position.
The Roswell Republican’s promotion to the country’s highest health perch puts him at the center of the Trump administration’s effort to overhaul health care policy in America. He now helms a sprawling federal agency with 80,000 employees, a roughly $1 trillion annual budget and broad jurisdiction over issues including Medicare, food safety, infectious disease research and the care of children who have come to the U.S. by crossing the southern border.
Vice President Mike Pence administered the oath of office to Price in a brief ceremony Friday morning in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
Pence, a pal of Price’s dating to their time together as young conservatives in the House of Representatives, told the new secretary that he and President Donald Trump are “both confident that you will bring that experience as a physician, that experience at the state level and that singular experience at the national level to ensure that President Trump’s vision for a health care system in this country that works for every American will become a reality in the years ahead.”
Earlier Friday, senators narrowly voted to confirm Price on a 52-47 party-line vote held shortly before 2 a.m., making the vote for Price the most polarizing for a health and human services nominee in at least 40 years. Every Republican supported the seven-term congressman, while all Democrats and both left-leaning independents voted to reject him.
Friday’s events capped a whirlwind journey for Price that vaulted him from the wonky yet under-the-radar chairman of the House Budget Committee to the country’s top health official in roughly 10 weeks.
Meanwhile, Gov. Nathan Deal scheduled a special election to fill Price’s 6th Congressional District seat on April 18 and a runoff — all but guaranteed — for June 20. Qualifying begins on Monday and ends Wednesday.
Republicans and Democrats were sharply divided over Price’s nomination from the moment it was announced after the Thanksgiving holiday.
But while the rhetoric surrounding his stock trades and views on health care was frequently heated, it lacked the same emotional rawness that characterized consideration of Jeff Sessions’ nomination as attorney general earlier this week.
Instead, Republicans and Democrats talked past one another throughout the day Thursday as they rehashed arguments on the Senate floor surrounding the 62-year-old’s record.
Eager to begin unraveling the Affordable Care Act, GOP senators framed Price as an ideal candidate to take the lead in such an effort.
“We should take comfort in his nomination to this important position because he has years of service and years of experience working within our nation’s health care system,” Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue said.
Price built his medical career in Atlanta, completing his residency at Emory University before opening his own orthopedic clinic and working at Grady Memorial Hospital. He cut his political teeth as an officer in the Medical Association of Georgia, a role that helped him win an open seat in the state Senate and eventually rise to become the first Republican majority leader in modern Georgia history.
Price’s work experience was never the issue for Senate Democrats. They instead focused on his past health care proposals, which they framed as extreme.
“Congressman Price’s record is perfectly clear,” said U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. “He wants to destroy fundamental protections that millions of Americans depend on for their health and economic security. And, frankly, he isn’t very subtle about it.”
They zeroed in on his past Obamacare replacement proposal, which they said would put health care out of reach for many Americans, and previous plans to overhaul safety-net programs such as Medicare.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders said Price’s past positions on entitlements clash with Trump’s campaign promises.
“He ran a campaign in which he said over and over again: ‘I am a different type of Republican. I am not going to cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid,’ ” said Sanders, an independent from Vermont. “Yet he has nominated individuals like Congressman Price who have spent their entire career doing the exact opposite.”
Democrats also highlighted Price’s stock trades, which they said toed congressional insider trading laws and were misrepresented in Price’s testimony before two Senate committees.
“The stock trades Congressman Price made while working on health care policy raise serious ethical and legal questions that deserve further inquiry,” said Oregon Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, who previously pushed for ethics investigations into the timing of Price’s stock trades.
Price and Trump’s transition team maintained throughout that he did nothing wrong. Senate Republicans also backed him up on that point.
“As the chairman of the Ethics Committee … I know what we have to submit and make public,” said Georgia U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who worked behind the scenes for his House successor. “I know what we don’t. And every single thing he’s been accused of doing is just information taken out of his own disclosures that anybody who owns a computer can get today to make it look like he’s bad and a bad guy.”
Utah Republican U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch summed it up a little more bluntly.
“Some of the phony arguments that have been brought up are just pathetic,” he said.
Price’s new job gives him significant power to shape the regulations that help make the health care system function. His close relationship with U.S. Speaker Paul Ryan and other House Republicans will also make him invaluable to Trump as he looks to build support for a replacement plan for Obamacare.
Price did not deliver any remarks after he was sworn in, but he told senators at his confirmation hearings that his experience as a doctor helped shape his philosophy when it comes to health care.
Many of his former patients “were never more angry and frustrated than when they realized that there was someone other than themselves and/or their physician making medical decisions on their behalf,” he recounted.
Price said he also noticed there were often “more individuals within our office who were dealing with paperwork, insurance filings and government regulations than there were individuals actually seeing and treating patients.”
“It was in those moments that it became crystal clear that our health care system was losing focus on the No. 1 priority — the individual patient,” Price said.
Throughout his career, Price has been viewed as advancing policies favorable to the health care industry, which has in kind donated millions to his political campaigns, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis.
A broad field of more than a dozen candidates is already lining up to replace Price. The contest will be among the first congressional races since Trump’s victory.