Washington Update

Senate Likely to Approve Burwell to Head HHS

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Approval of Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President Obama’s nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), appears all but assured after a bipartisan group of senators on two key committees endorsed her nomination. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), a physician and one of the Senate’s most conservative members, introduced Burwell at a May 14 meeting of the Senate Finance Committee and praised her character, listening skills and common sense. 

Burwell, who heads the Office of Management and Budget, received the earlier endorsement of another of the Senate’s most conservative Republicans, North Carolina’s Richard Burr, during her May 8 meeting with the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions: “She and I have sat down, and we agreed that she’s going to support the president’s position and she’s agreed that I’m going to be vehemently opposed to it—and that we’re going to focus on everything else where we can work together,” said Burr, who sits on both the HELP and Finance committees.

At the all-important Senate Finance Committee hearing, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the senior Republican on the Committee, questioned Burwell about whether states that received federal money to start a health insurance exchange but ultimately failed to do so should return the funds to the U.S. Treasury. Burwell expressed support in principle for the proposition to return federal dollars spent on misused or failed health care exchanges. That same day, Sens. Hatch and John Barrasso (R-WY) introduced a bill to force states that pursued creation of unsuccessful health exchanges with federal dollars to give the HHS grants back to the government.

Burwell, who gets high marks for her technocratic and people skills, would replace outgoing HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who led the agency during implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

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