Can Tom Price save Republicans from their Obamacare mess?

Man at town hall: Rip Obamacare to shreds
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Story highlights

  • Republicans have been divided on how to repeal and replace Obamacare
  • Trump has promised action once Price was confirmed to his cabinet

Washington (CNN)Republican lawmakers entangled in endless disagreement about how to repeal Obamacare and waiting for leadership from the White House are optimistic they may have found their solution: newly-minted Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

Price, who was sworn in just last week and served alongside Republicans in Congress for more than a decade, lunched with Senate Republicans Wednesday in a meeting members said revealed a few details about what comes next. But just his presence could be a calming force.
During the lunch, Price warned members to get ready for a lot of work ahead. He also tried to quell concerns that there isn't a clear path forward to dismantle Obamacare.
According to multiple members in the meeting, Price emphasized the importance of stabilizing the current insurance marketplace as Republicans push forward and assured members there were steps his agency could take in his new position to smooth that transition unilaterally.
"He talked about how much work they are doing on what they can do from the executive. He put out an order today," said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia. "He wants to work with us."
Hours before the gathering, Price's agency made its first move to change Obamacare. It issued a proposed rule aimed mainly at quelling insurers' concerns and stabilizing the marketplace for 2018. But it is also likely to raise deductibles and out-of-pocket costs for many consumers.
Republican infighting over how to handle coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, Medicaid expansion, Obamacare taxes, subsidies for insurers and more have all led the Obamacare discussion in circles in the last month.
Even as Price was meeting with the Senate, the House Freedom Caucus -- losing patience with delays in repealing Obamacare -- was unveiling its own separate replacement bill.
And Price's proposals in previous years have been more conservative than some Senate moderates may be willing to back.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said he hoped that Price would finally "provide a pathway forward."
"Let's hope so," Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, said when asked if he hoped that Price could provide some direction for a path forward.
"You in need of one of those?" he was asked.
"Yeah," he said, laughing.
President Donald Trump himself has repeatedly raised the bar for Price's confirmation, vowing that Republican would release an Obamacare replacement plan as soon as his HHS secretary was in place.
But in the meeting Wednesday, Price kept his proposals big picture and did not offer many specifics on how to tackle the big hurdles that have kept lawmakers from coming to a consensus on Obamacare for seven years, lawmakers said. That's a possible sign that Price and Trump want to leave the legislating to his former colleagues on the Hill. Ahead of his confirmation hearings last month, a transition source told CNN that Price was reticent to tout his own health care measure and wanted to avoid the appearance that he was asking lawmakers to endorse his ideas.
"We need more details," said Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi. "There are more wrinkles to be ironed out. If there weren't, we'd be having a big old press conference today, I guess."
Republican senators are still trying to get a sense of how Price will operate and how much he will defer to Trump. Price's own Obamacare alternatives have included many of the same ideas Republicans are talking about now; high risk pools for the sick, health savings accounts, the ability to buy insurance across state lines and the option to buy bare-bones plans. However, Price's own plans have also been considered by many to be too far right on the ideological spectrum.
Some members said that wasn't an immediate concern.
"He's taking orders now," Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy said before the lunch. "It isn't Tom Price, it is Donald Trump and Donald Trump has said he wants everybody covered, caring for those with pre-existing conditions without mandates, reduce costs. That's his orders, so whatever Tom's approach has to be adapted to Donald Trump's, not vice versa, so I do think if you achieve the President's goals, he will temper it to some extent."
At the same time, Trump and the White House has been unclear at times about their marching orders to Congress. Early on, for instance, Trump called for "insurance for everybody" as well as protections for people with pre-existing conditions.