Top 10 health care surprises from Year One of Trump
President Donald Trump stormed into office last January confident that he could knock off Obamacare in a nanosecond. It didn’t turn out that way — and from drug prices to the Tom Price travel scandal a lot of health policy didn’t go according to plan. Here’s a look at 10 health care surprises from 2017.
1. Obamacare survives its seventh year
In control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, Republicans had their best shot ever at Obamacare repeal — and even thought they could have it on Trump’s desk on Inauguration Day. The grand ambitions quickly met roadblocks. Members rebelled over policy details, GOP leaders struggled to find consensus, moderates mutinied, and virtually the entire health care industry — along with Democrats and Obamacare advocates — lined up against every plan that Republicans put forward.
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Even so, the GOP eventually squeaked a bill through the House and after several false starts put a proposal on the Senate floor. That’s when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) delivered perhaps the biggest stunner of the year: A late-night thumbs down that sunk the Senate bill, and effectively ended the GOP’s repeal effort … until 2018.
Still Senate Republicans concede that with an even narrower vote margin, dismantling Obamacare may become, as Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) delicately put it, “a little more difficult.”
2. Price jets away from HHS
After years of railing against Obamacare as a member of Congress, Tom Price finally got a chance to do something about it as Health and Human Services secretary. The former orthopedic surgeon would aid Republicans’ effort to repeal the law while simultaneously unraveling Obamacare’s web of regulations. He fell short on both counts. Price all but disappeared during the Senate’s bid to craft a repeal bill, frustrating Republicans and, more importantly, the president. Soon after, POLITICO revealed that he had routinely traveled by chartered private or military aircraft, costing taxpayers $1 million.
The scrutiny over his travel habits, combined with Trump’s irritation on ACA repeal, sped Price’s resignation seven months into the job. He left few tangible accomplishments — other than the distinction of being the first Cabinet member to make his exit.
3. Tough talk and no action on drug prices
Trump lobbed insults at a host of health care targets, but perhaps none landed with more rhetorical force than his denunciations of the “disastrous” drug industry.
“The drug companies, frankly, are getting away with murder,” he seethed early on, suggesting he might empower Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies.
It didn’t happen. For all of Trump’s tough talk, he’s made no concrete moves toward cracking down on pharmaceutical prices. A promised executive order never materialized — and a leaked draft of the directive appeared largely pharma friendly anyway.
In November, Trump nominated Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive, to serve as his next HHS secretary. Azar has already rejected sweeping changes to rein in drug prices, like allowing drug reimportation or giving Medicare greater negotiating power. The administration’s agenda on drug prices now looks smaller, more traditional, and far less of a threat to the pharmaceutical industry.
4. GOP kills the individual mandate — in a tax bill
For all their failures on repeal and replace Obamacare, Republicans did land a major blow — it just took a tax bill to get the job done. The GOP’s sweeping tax overhaul zeroes out the penalty levied on most people for not purchasing insurance starting in 2019, effectively gutting Obamacare’s individual mandate.
Republicans had long made the mandate a top target for repeal. But it’s also a pillar of the health law — the mechanism that Obamacare supporters contend is crucial to keeping enough healthy people in the market to stabilize premiums.
Yet in a twist, Senate Republicans who months earlier proved too skittish to dismantle Obamacare jumped at the chance to eliminate the mandate, despite Congressional Budget Office projections that it would drive up premiums 10 percent and leave 13 million more people uninsured over the next decade.
With just 12 days left in a year they’d vowed was Obamacare’s last, Republicans passed their tax bill — and in the process, made their only major legislative change to the health law.
5. Planned Parenthood’s funding goes untouched
The GOP’s sweep into power also placed them on the verge of accomplishing a second top health care goal: Defunding Planned Parenthood. Once again, Republicans found themselves foiled by their own members. Moderate Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins used their leverage as Senate swing votes to protect the funding of an organization they ardently support.
When McCain joined them in voting down repeal in July, it also put the defunding efforts on hold indefinitely. And now facing only a two-vote advantage in the Senate in 2018, it’s unclear whether the GOP can find the political will to take federal action against Planned Parenthood.
6. The vaccine controversy that never was
When high-profile vaccine skeptic Robert Kennedy Jr. traveled to New York in January to meet with Trump, it looked like the start of a controversial plan to boost the scientifically disproved theory that vaccines can cause autism. Trump had previously suggested vaccines could be dangerous, and Kennedy emerged from Trump Tower touting plans to chair “a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity” at the president-elect’s behest.