The Senate confirmed Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., early Friday as the new secretary of Health and Human Services.
He was approved by a party-line vote of 52-47. Democrats were concerned that the conservative congressman wants to pare down government health programs. They were also troubled by lingering ethics questions over Price's investments.
In his new role, Price, a retired orthopedic surgeon from suburban Atlanta who served as chairman of the House Budget Committee, is expected to implement the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, which his colleagues in Congress have been working on this year.
Price will oversee a $1 trillion agency, the largest budget of any Cabinet secretary. In addition to Obamacare, HHS administers the Medicare and Medicaid programs and oversees the National Institutes of Health, among other programs and agencies.
With Price's confirmation, HHS now has as its leader a budget hawk who has proposed replacing the Affordable Care Act subsidies that are tied to income, with tax credits to purchase insurance. Tax credits are not determined by an individual's income level.
Price also supports the proposal by House Speaker Paul Ryan to turn Medicare into what some call a "voucher" program. Under the plan, beneficiaries would receive "premium support" from the government to buy a Medicare health plan through an exchange. The private plans would compete against the traditional government-run program.
During his confirmation hearing, Price said his goal was that everyone have access to health insurance.
"What I commit to the American people is to keep patients at the center of health care. And what that means to me is making certain every single American has access to affordable health coverage," he said.
Democrats spent hours on Thursday reading stories from their constituents about how the Affordable Care Act helped them, and tried to make the case that Price is a threat to Medicare, Medicaid and health care for people who have ongoing medical conditions.
"Congressman Price's budget in the House cuts nearly $500 million from Medicare and turns it into a voucher program," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., during the 30-hour debate.
The Obamacare replacement Price proposed included offering tax credits starting at $1,200 a year to allow people to buy health insurance, boosting the use of tax-advantaged health savings accounts and limiting the tax deduction companies take for providing health insurance to workers.
Those ideas are the core of what Republicans say they want to do to replace the ACA, but the details of how big the tax credits would be and exactly how the HSAs would be structured are unknown.
During his confirmation, Price was dogged by questions about investments he made in health care-related companies.
Price says he followed all congressional ethics rules, but his well-timed trades made it appear that he could have used his position to influence the price of stocks he owned, or that he received special treatment from companies in which he invested.
Republicans in the Senate were satisfied with his explanations, however, and the former congressman will be headed to his new office today.