Debut Hearing for HHS Nominee Suggests Smooth Path to Confirmation

WASHINGTON – President Obama’s choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services received a cordial reception at a Senate hearing on Thursday despite differing with panel Republicans over the impact of the Affordable Care Act.

Sylvia Burwell, currently serving as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that the department’s effort to ensure accessible, affordable, quality healthcare through what is popularly known as Obamacare “is making a positive difference in the lives of our families and our communities while strengthening the economy.”

“Because of the law, millions of Americans now have new benefits, new protections, and new health coverage,” she said. “The Congressional Budget Office recently affirmed that the ACA is working to lower healthcare cost growth, make individual market premiums affordable, increase coverage and reduce the federal deficit.”

The healthcare reform law, which passed in 2010, is one of the most controversial federal laws passed in recent times and the GOP is constantly trying to either repeal it or replace it with legislation more to their liking. Basically, it requires all Americans to obtain health insurance, providing subsidies to those who might otherwise be unable to afford it, and mandates that larger employers provide a health insurance benefit for their full-time workers.

As a result of Obamacare, the White House maintains, there are 4.8 million new Medicaid enrollees and more than 8 million more Americans have signed up for health insurance.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the committee’s ranking member, told Burwell that Republicans “want to repair the damage Obamacare has done and prevent future damage.”

“As responsibly and rapidly as we can, we want to move in a different direction to put in place proposals that provide more freedom, more choices and lower costs,” Alexander said. “We trust Americans to make these decisions for ourselves. That is the American way.”

Alexander said Republicans warned the White House and the public four years ago that Obamacare would “increase the cost of healthcare, people would lose their choice of doctors, policies would be canceled, people would lose jobs, taxes would go up and Medicare beneficiaries would be harmed.”

“All of these things have happened,” Alexander said, and urged Burwell to support GOP proposals.

The committee session was not a confirmation hearing – that will come before the Senate Finance Committee at a later, unspecified date. But if Thursday’s meeting is any indication, it appears Burwell will have a clear path to succeed Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who is resigning from the $1 trillion agency.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who introduced Burwell to the panel, noted that there exists a disagreement over the efficacy of the Affordable Care Act but he intends to vote for her confirmation when the opportunity presents itself.

“Regardless of my objections to Obamacare, the Department of Health and Human Services needs competent leadership in the position of secretary,” McCain said. “I believe Ms. Burwell has the qualifications to run HHS and have been assured that she will work with members of Congress and be more responsive to its members than her predecessor.”

“When Sylvia was nominated to be director of the OMB, I said that position ‘is perhaps the toughest job in Washington,’” McCain said. “The position for which she is currently nominated is perhaps the most thankless.”

McCain wasn’t the lone Republican to express support.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who serves on both the Health and the Finance committees, said he also will support the nominee. No one has announced opposition.

Burwell, who was confirmed 97-0 when her nomination as budget director came before the Senate last year, promised to strengthen relationships “to make progress on the wide variety of issues at the department that transcend parties, and will ultimately transcend our generation.”

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the committee chairman, said Burwell “has proven herself as an effective and dynamic manager with experience and skill in leading a wide range of organizations.”

In one exchange, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) asked Burwell if the Affordable Care Act was a stalking horse to convert American healthcare to a single-payer system. Burwell responded by saying Obamacare remains at its heart a private market-based health insurance system.

"I look forward to, if confirmed, making that system work as efficiently and effectively as possible, both in terms of cost and access,” she said.

Burwell, a West Virginia native, served as deputy chief of staff under former President Bill Clinton before moving on to serve as president of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Global Development Program and, later, the Wal-Mart Foundation. She returned to the White House to lead the OMB.