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In June, Sylvia Mathews Burwell assumed leadership at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate in a bipartisan 78-17 vote. Ms. Burwell succeeds Kathleen Sebelius as HHS secretary and takes the position after working as head of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) since 2013.

AAOS Now

Published 7/1/2014
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Elizabeth Fassbender

Meet the New Secretary of HHS

Sylvia Mathews Burwell received bipartisan support

Ms. Burwell will oversee the 11 agencies that make up the HHS department, including the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration. She will also oversee the continued implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

During her confirmation process, many Republicans agreed that her openness to their oversight requests and concerns about the ACA—together with her commitment to transparency and her background in the private sector—was impressive.

Before heading up the OMB, Ms. Burwell had served first as president of the Global Development Program of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and later as president of the Walmart Foundation. While working for the Gates Foundation, she focused on agricultural development, financial services for the poor, and global libraries. She had also served as Deputy Director at OMB for several years during the Clinton administration.

Ms. Burwell received a bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard University and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Oxford University. In addition to her work at the OMB and with the Walmart Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, she has been a director of MetLife and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, deputy chief of staff to President Clinton, and was chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

“What this proves is that if you nominate talented people, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Republican or Democrat,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), one of the first Republicans to formally pledge support for Ms. Burwell. “People acknowledge the talent. She didn’t have to earn my support. Her resume earned it.”

Other legislators praised her difference from Sebelius, who faced an enormous amount of criticism for the ACA rollout difficulties and her unwillingness to work with Congress. “Ms. Burwell is an extremely competent person who will answer your questions, unlike Ms. Sebelius,” stated Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). “She’s got the skills to be able to run a huge department and she will answer your questions. That’s about all you can ask for.”

Although her confirmation process was surprisingly smooth, the new HHS secretary will certainly be faced with challenges in the weeks and months to come. Implementation of the ACA still faces hurdles, including ongoing technical issues and continued political opposition. Further, Ms. Burwell will be responsible for expensive entitlement programs, food and drug regulations, and medical research.

“No one should misread my vote today as an acknowledgement that all is well in the world of Obamacare and HHS,” stated Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “But Ms. Burwell has acknowledged, for her part, that problems exist and is committed to fixing those problems. Under this administration, that’s probably the best we can hope for.”

During her confirmation hearing, Ms. Burwell recognized the difficulties facing her and outlined her plan for facing them. “Understanding the complexity and significance of the challenges that lie ahead, I will approach my work at the Department with three guiding tenets—driving solutions for the issues we all care deeply about; building teams with the talent and focus we need to implement against our objectives; and strengthening relationships to make progress on the wide variety of issues at the Department that transcend parties and will ultimately transcend our generation.”

Elizabeth Fassbender is the communications specialist in the AAOS office of government relations. She can be reached at fassbender@aaos.org