Senate Confirms New HHS Director to Lead on Obamacare

June 6, 2014

Sylvia Mathews Burwell

Sylvia Mathews Burwell

WASHINGTON — Colorado’s two Democratic senators approved the nomination of Sylvia Mathews Burwell Thursday as the new Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary to replace Kathleen Sebelius, who resigned six months after the disastrous rollout of Obamacare.

Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet voted along with 52 Democrats and independents and 24 Republicans who approved of the nominee, while 17 Republicans voted no.

Neither Coloradan released statements to explain their votes, and Bennet declined to answer a reporter’s question as he headed onto the Senate floor to vote.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican, said during a floor speech prior to the vote he supported Burwell’s nomination partly because of her stated commitment to retrieve $1.3 billion the federal government gave to seven states whose state-run exchanges failed or need an overhaul.

“She committed everything in her power to retrieve the lost taxpayer funds. This is significant because thus far HHS has refused to acknowledge many of the problems they faced in implementing the Affordable Care Act,” Hatch said.

“The fact that she made this commitment to me demonstrates that she is at least willing to admit that there are some major problems with the program,” Hatch said.

Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said the strong support for Burwell in the upper chamber represented an “extraordinary statement about the breadth of bipartisan support” for her.

However, key Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky opposed the nominee because of her support for Obamacare.

“In my view the Senate shouldn’t be focusing on a new captain for the Titanic. It should focus on steering away from the iceberg,” McConnell said.

Burwell’s nomination jumped a key procedural hurdle Wednesday when the Senate voted 67-28 to prevent a filibuster.

Burwell’s resume reads like a description of the establishment’s stations of the cross. She received an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a master’s from Oxford, served on the Council on Foreign Relations, worked for McKinsey & Co and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and has been director of the Office of Management and Budget since April 2013.

As head of HHS, Burwell will preside over an agency with a $1 trillion budget next year and nearly 80,000 employees, according to government figures. Payments for Medicare and Medicaid, the two federal-state medical insurance programs, represent nearly four of every five dollars in the agency’s budget.

Burwell’s confirmation makes her a public face of Obamacare, the colloquial name for the Affordable Care Act of 2010. She replaces Sebelius, whose five-year tenure was dogged by controversies over Obamacare’s mandate on artificial contraception and abortifacients as well as the botched rollout of Sebelius announced her resignation in early April.

Although a Washington Post-ABC poll this week showed that President Barack Obama’s approval ratings have risen to 46 percent, his signature health-care law remains unpopular in Colorado. A Public Policy Polling survey in March found that 39 percent of Coloradoans approved and 51 disapproved of the law.

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