Obama nominates new HHS secretary to fix Obamacare

President Obama stands next to Sylvia Mathews Burwell while nominating her to become director of the White House Office of Management and Budget March 4, 2013.  Credit: Reuters
President Obama stands next to Sylvia Mathews Burwell while nominating her to become director of the White House Office of Management and Budget March 4, 2013.
Credit: Reuters

President Barack Obama said on Friday he will promote his budget director, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, to be health secretary, presiding over the next difficult phase of implementing his healthcare law during the lead-up to the midterm elections.

Burwell, who must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, will replace Kathleen Sebelius, who was blamed for the disastrous rollout of Obamacare, formally known as the Affordable Care Act.

Sebelius’s departure removes one lightning rod for critics as Obama and nervous Democrats try to retain control of the U.S. Senate in November midterm elections, but Republicans continue to see problems with the ACA as a winning issue.

“If the Obama people thought this was going to calm the waters, I think they misread it. I think it’s just going to embolden Republicans,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

The October 1 launch of new Obamacare health insurance marketplaces, which was plagued by computer problems that stymied access for millions of people, has been condemned by Republicans as a step toward socialized medicine.

Burwell is relatively unknown outside the Beltway, and has a “tall order” to fix all the detailed issues with the law, and improve its standing among voters, Yepsen said.

Polls show Obamacare remains unpopular. In March, 46 percent of people said they had an unfavorable view of the law, while 38 percent said they liked it, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“HOLD ME ACCOUNTABLE”

Sebelius, 65, became the public face for the problem-plagued start to the enrollment period for Obamacare, which was meant to reduce the number of Americans without health insurance and cut into massive U.S. healthcare costs.

When enrollment opened in October, the federal HealthCare.gov website used by consumers in 36 states failed to work for weeks. The White House called in a team of management and technology experts to fix the site, which began working more or less smoothly by December.

Even as she took responsibility for the failures, Obama stuck by Sebelius, brushing aside pressure to fire her.

“Hold me accountable for the debacle. I’m responsible,” Sebelius said at an October 30 hearing.

The enrollment period was ultimately successful, surpassing the 7 million figure the Obama administration had predicted. But Sebelius, a former governor of Kansas, told Obama in early March she wanted to leave the administration, a White House official said.

“She believed that once open enrollment ended it would be the right time to transition the department to new leadership,” the official said.

MANAGEMENT CREDENTIALS

Burwell, 48, is no stranger to top-level administrative positions, having served as deputy White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration and in top roles at the Treasury Department and the National Economic Council.

She served at the Office of Management and Budget twice, as deputy director under Jack Lew from 1998 to 2001, and took over as director about a year ago. She helped the administration manage its response to a shutdown of the federal government brought on by a budget battle with Republicans in October.

In the intervening years, she worked at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and as head of the Wal-Mart Foundation.

Burwell “seems to have a strong background in management, and that’s what we need now,” said Timothy Jost, a healthcare expert who teaches at Washington and Lee University.

“We’re over some of the biggest hurdles now, and what we need is somebody who can stay the course.”

Her nomination into the contentious position will likely be eased by a Senate rule change last year known as the “nuclear option,” which lowers the vote threshold needed to overcome procedural hurdles for confirmation of presidential nominees.

Instead of the previous 60 votes required to override a senator’s objection to a nominee, only 51 votes are needed to advance to a final vote under the changes made by Senate Democrats, who currently control the Senate 55 votes to 45.

One of the first challenges for Burwell will be to work with health insurers in the coming months as they set prices for Obamacare plans in 2015. Industry executives have warned that many states could see double-digit increases in monthly premiums as they try to account for the higher proportion of older policyholders who often cost more to cover. Such price hikes would provide fodder for Republican opponents of the law who say it creates financial burdens for individuals and businesses.

She will also be challenged to improve the health insurance exchanges before the next enrollment period begins in November, and with the Treasury Department, implement new penalties for Americans who did not buy health insurance.

Democrats facing tough races in November are pushing for politically palatable changes to the law, while Republicans will push to get rid of it.

“Secretary Sebelius may be gone, but the problems with this law and the impact it’s having on our constituents aren’t,” said Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate.

“Obamacare has to go, too,” McConnell said in a statement.

BUTT OF LATE-NIGHT JOKES

Sebelius’s resignation caps a series of departures by lower-profile officials responsible for implementing the law.

Sebelius testified to Congress about the law as recently as Thursday, giving no sign that she was about to step down.

In an interview with the New York Times, Sebelius said she wished she could take “all the animosity” toward Obamacare with her when she departs.

“If that could just leave with me, and we could get to a new chapter, that would be terrific,” she said.

Lawmakers from both parties gave Sebelius credit on Thursday for persevering through what Republican Senator Orrin Hatch called “one of the toughest jobs in Washington.”

Analysts said Sebelius’s career as secretary hit a low point soon after the October 1 launch, when she continued to travel the country to promote enrollment, including an embarrassing appearance on “The Daily Show,” a cable television comedy program, and regular skewering on “Saturday Night Live.”

Republicans including her fellow Kansan Senator Pat Roberts called for her to step down for what he called “gross incompetence”, and administration insiders said relations with the White House grew increasingly tense thereafter.

“You won’t find a piece of paper saying she was fired. But it had to be uncomfortable, and not having a change in personnel after the disastrous rollout must have rubbed the administration’s Democratic supporters the wrong way,” said Joe Antos of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Local

G train riders brace for five-week shutdown

G train service will be suspended between Brooklyn and Queens between Friday, July 25, and Tuesday, Sept. 2.

International

Peaches Geldof's death was drugs-related, coroner rules

LONDON (Reuters) - The death of Peaches Geldof, the daughter of musician and Band Aid founder Bob Geldof, was drugs-related, a coroner ruled on Wednesday.The…

Local

Family, supporters gather in Brooklyn for Eric Garner…

Family members gathered on Wednesday for the funeral of Eric Garner, who died shortly after police put him in a banned chokehold as they arrested him.

Local

VIDEO: In Israel, Michael Bloomberg calls Wolf Blitzer…

CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked if the billionaire, three-term former Mayor Michael Bloomberg thought there might be political reasons for the FAA's decision.

Going Out

5 must-try dishes at Edible Manhattan's Good Beer

Rooting out the exotic amid the New York City bar scene is noble quest. But if you’d like to have it all come to you,…

Books

Art imitates life (almost) in David Shapiro's new…

David Shapiro talks about his book, "You're Not Much Use To Anyone."

Movies

Dakota Fanning's indie growing pains on 'Very Good…

Dakota Fanning on her latest "Very Good Girls."

Entertainment

Britney Spears launches new lingerie line and fans…

Women everywhere can say that they are not that innocent when Britney Spears launches her new lingerie and loungewear line. “Every woman should feel confident…

Sports

NBA great LeBron James sends 800 cupcake apologies…

By Kim PalmerCLEVELAND (Reuters) - NBA star LeBron James, whose recent return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in his home state of Ohio sparked a frenzy…

NFL

Fantasy football: Johnny Manziel could give your running…

Fantasy football: Johnny Manziel could give your running game a boost

NFL

3 storylines to watch as Jets open training…

Jets head coach Rex Ryan might be in for an even tougher job in 2014 after arguably his best coaching job last season.

NFL

David Tyree hiring has gay rights advocates angry

Former Giants Super Bowl hero David Tyree will re-join the franchise as its new director of player development.

Education

Colleges are increasingly embracing the concept of gender-neutral…

  Northwestern University recently made headlines after announcing that it would be installing two gender-neutral bathrooms in the university's student center. “These are two gender-open…

Career

How to prepare to interview for your dream…

    Congratulations! You landed a job interview at your dream company! A lot of hard work has gone into determining which companies to apply…

Style

The shirtdress is a summer must-have

  We love throwing on our boyfriend’s shirt and a pair of jeans (no matter how much he grumbles that it’s his turn to wear the…

Style

Jennifer Oz LeRoy tell us how to lunch…

Jennifer Oz LeRoy tells us what to pack for a day in the surf and sand.