The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


June 8, 2014

Big job ahead

Hinton native Sylvia Mathews Burwell was confirmed by the Senate last week as the next secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

She’s got her work cut out for her.

Burwell succeeds Kathleen Sebelius, the former Kansas governor who became the face of the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

For that, Sebelius took the fall for the Obama administration.

The good news for Burwell is she has a clean slate to tackle the Affordable Care Act and try to straighten it up prior to the next signup season, which starts Nov. 15.

The bad news for her is that the problems that eventually drowned Sebelius are still there.    

The confirmation vote was 78-17, showing bipartisan support and no doubt a little sympathy for Burwell and the job she faces.

Burwell, 48, formerly served as president of the Wal-Mart Foundation and was previously president of the Global Development Program of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In that job, Burwell focused on combating world poverty through agricultural development, financial services for the poor, and global libraries.

Combating world poverty may seem like a snap compared to serving as administrator over the Affordable Care Act.

The White House, struggling with foreign policy setbacks, has no wish for more negative headlines linked to health care.

As The Associated Press reported last week, Democrats “expressed the hope that Burwell’s confirmation might usher in a fresh start for Obamacare.”

Others were less enthusiastic about Burwell’s prospects.

“There is the potential for a huge mess again,” said Robert Laszewski, a health care industry consultant.

Burwell’s agency is responsible for making sure people in more states are covered by insurance this fall, “after several states flopped at running their own insurance exchanges,” the AP reported.

The Obama administration wants $600 million for the enrollment effort, added to the $1.2 billion that will come from user fees paid by insurers. Republicans are skeptical about pouring more money into the signup process.

Added to those issues is another problem the HHS has acknowledged already. That is that at least 2.1 million people have paperwork “inconsistencies that could affect their eligibility or the size of their subsidy.”

As the AP notes, continuing problems such as this one could lead to a new round of criticism of HHS and the Affordable Care Act that the Obama administration is desperate to avoid.

Welcome to Washington, Mrs. Burwell. We wish you the best of luck.

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