Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President Barack Obama’s nominee for U.S. health secretary, will need all her skills as a crisis manager to steer the law known as Obamacare away from troubled waters during this year’s congressional election campaign.
If confirmed by the Senate, her first task would be to get the upper hand on two issues that could spiral out of control for Democrats just before the November elections: rising health insurance costs and the potential for a new wave of policy cancellations for small businesses.
Both issues are grist for the Republican campaign mill to win control of the Senate by making the Nov. 4 poll a referendum on Obamacare. The last thing Democrats need is a new self-inflicted wound akin to the fiasco last year, when HealthCare.gov crashed on launch and millions of Americans found themselves with canceled health insurance policies.
Then there are the non-Obamacare challenges, with funding and staff shortages – and resulting low morale – at the Department of Health and Human Services agencies that regulate prescription drugs, combat disease outbreaks and oversee biomedical research.
Burwell’s Senate confirmation process begins Thursday with a hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. A second hearing before the Senate Finance Committee has not been set but Democrats hope for a final vote before the Memorial Day holiday on May 26.
Burwell’s supporters say the 48-year-old White House budget director is perfect for the job: a seasoned problem-solver known for her ability to engage with people of diverse interests and produce acceptable decisions under difficult circumstances.