HHS nominee Burwell gets tough questions from committee that will decide her fate

 

McClatchy Washington Bureau

The road to becoming the next U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary got a little bumpy for Sylvia Mathews Burwell on Wednesday as she was peppered with a series of pointed questions on a wide range of issues during her second Senate nomination hearing.

After breezing through a similar hearing last week, Burwell, who heads the White House Office of Management and Budget, faced tougher questions from the Senate Committee on Finance which will ultimately vote on whether she succeeds Kathleen Sebelius as HHS Secretary.

Burwell, President Obama’s nominee, has broad support from Democrats and Republicans on the committee and is expected to be confirmed by a wide margin.

But GOP members like Sen. Charles Grassley, R-IA, who were alienated by Sebelius’ failure to respond to their information requests, made it clear that if confirmed, they expect Burwell to be much more attentive.

“You have a fresh start with Congress and with the public, but if you’re going to make the most of that opportunity, you’re going to have to do things differently than they’ve been done,” Grassley told Burwell.

Citing Medicare administrator Marilyn Tavenner as an example, Grassley said she, like Burwell, had pledged to be responsive to committee members.

“Now it seems like she’s gone into the witness protection program, it’s been so long since she was last in the (witness) chair or at my door. I hope that doesn’t happen with you,” Grassley told Burwell. “I hope you don’t disappear into the same bunker.”

After receiving glowing praise during introductions from Senators Tom Coburn, R-OK, and John Rockefeller, D-WV, Burwell addressed issues ranging from the potential misuse of powdered alcohol by minors, whether affluent seniors should pay more for their Medicare coverage and whether states with poor-performing insurance marketplaces should repay the federal government millions of dollars they received to develop the systems.

Burwell promised Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the committee ranking member, that if state marketplace funds were misused, “we need to use the full extent of the law to get those funds back for the taxpayer.”

She told Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, that she’ll find out why the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t weighed in on the issue of powdered alcohol. “I will understand it further if I am confirmed,” Burwell said.

And she got into a dispute with Sen. Rob Portman, R-OH, who wanted to know if Burwell would support a proposal in President Obama’s 2015 budget to have wealthier seniors pay higher Medicare premiums as a way to shore up the program’s finances and reduce the federal deficit.

Portman said he supports the proposal as a stand-alone measure independent of the president’s budget.

Burwell said she too supports the measure, but only as a part of a combination of remedies to address the deficit, which includes corporate tax reform. “These things are on the table, but we also believe revenue has to be a part of the conversation,” Burwell said.

Portman disagreed, saying it would be difficult to get any long-term deficit reduction agreement through Congress that raises taxes. “The logic doesn’t seem to fit for me,” he told Burwell.

The finance committee is expected to vote on Burwell’s confirmation after receiving written responses to their additional questions.

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