By choosing White House budget director Sylvia Mathews Burwell to succeed Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of Health and Human Services, President Obama has turned to an accomplished manager and shrewd political tactician to take charge of one of the most difficult portfolios within his administration.
With a resume that includes important service at the highest levels of the Clinton and Obama governments and substantial experience in the rarefied world of major foundations, the popular Burwell is well suited to navigate treacherous political terrain in leading HHS through the next phase of Obamacare after the program’s tumultuous start-up under Sebelius.
“We know there’s still more work to do at HHS, there’s more work to implement the Affordable Care Act, there’s another enrollment period coming up about six months from now,” Obama said in announcing his choice of Burwell during a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden Friday morning. “There’s a whole array of responsibilities to meet over at this large and very important agency. And I could choose no manager as experienced, as competent, as my current director of the Office of Management and Budget, Sylvia Mathews Burwell.”
While the administration this week boasted that it managed to sign up 7.5 million Americans for insurance coverage during the first six rocky months of the ACA, Republicans have vowed to continue to wage war against Obamacare throughout the 2014 mid-term election.
Burwell skated through her Senate confirmation process to become director of the OMB last April (winning unanimous 96 to 0 approval). She subsequently earned high marks from many Republicans for her straightforward, bridge-building approach to budget negotiations and for helping to bring an end to a 16-day government shutdown last October.
She is likely to face a more challenging confirmation hearing this time, however, as Republicans are certain to tee off on a raft of complaints about the law and its impact on the economy and the insurance market. “Ms. Burwell will be nominated to lead one of the most important jobs in government,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), a leading critic of Obamacare. “And I hope this is the start of a candid conversation about Obamacare’s short-comings and the need to protect Medicare for today’s seniors, their children and their grandchildren."
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) said, “In her short time at OMB, I found Sylvia to be a consummate professional. At HHS, she’ll have her work cut out for her. I wish her well, and I look forward to working with her.”
In a brief statement, Burwell, 48, said, “I’m humbled, honored and excited by the opportunity to build on the accomplishments that Kathleen, the President and so many others have put in place. If confirmed by the Senate, I look forward to carrying on the important work of insuring that children, families and seniors have the building blocks of healthy and productive lives, whether it is through implementing the Affordable Care Act, supporting affordable child care or finding new frontiers to prevent and treat diseases.”
The sprawling HHS also manages Medicare and Medicaid and oversees medical research, food safety and scores of other important activities and services.
A graduate of Harvard University and Oxford University, Burwell worked in the administration of President Bill Clinton, on the National Economic Council and in the Treasury Department where she became a protégé of Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and worked closely with Jack Lew, the current Treasury Secretary. After her years with the Clinton administration, Burwell served as both chief operating officer and had of the global development program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which gave her an opportunity to learn much about global health issues.
Burwell went on to serve as president of the Walmart Foundation before she was lured back into government by President Obama, who tapped her to become the White House budget chief. Noting today that Burwell grew up in a small West Virginia town, Obama said, “She brings the common sense that you see in small towns. She brings the values of caring about your neighbor and ordinary folks to some of the biggest and most complex challenges of her time.”
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