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Health and Human Services vacancy lets GOP vent on health care law

| Sunday, April 13, 2014, 6:21 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers said hearings on Sylvia Mathews Burwell's nomination as Health and Human Services secretary provide a fresh opening to raise questions about President Obama's health care law.

Obama's choice of Burwell, director of the Office of Management and Budget, to succeed Kathleen Sebelius will “elevate some of the concerns” that Republicans have about the law, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said on Sunday on CBS' “Face the Nation.”

She and other GOP lawmakers said they want details on how many enrollees have paid for their plans, the age composition of the enrollees and how that will influence insurers' decisions to raise prices next year.

After initial stumbles, the program beat initial forecasts as the first open enrollment period ended on March 31. About 7.5 million people signed up for private health insurance through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care, Sebelius told a Senate hearing on April 10, hours before her resignation was announced.

Lawmakers should use Burwell's confirmation hearings to “figure out first and foremost who actually has benefited from the so-called success of Obamacare and its rollout,” Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who sits on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

The Obama administration is “going to have to have somebody to kind of spin the numbers,” Blackburn said. “And this is something, with Burwell coming from OMB, I think they're expecting her to be able to do for them.”

Republicans have said that the health care law will be a central theme of their campaign to defend their House majority and win control of the Democratic-held Senate in the November elections.

Democrats have said they will defend the law's provisions, including its ban on denying coverage based on pre-existing medical conditions.

One of the key issues will be whether there will be high costs for individuals to get insured and whether that will drive people away.

WellPoint Inc., the biggest commercial insurer in the health law's exchanges, said last month that it may seek “double-digit plus” premium increases for 2015. Many other insurers have declined to comment on next year's rates.

Democrats will use Burwell's confirmation hearing to “tell the real human stories” about the health-law's benefits, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who sits on the health committee, said on Fox.

“This law has been immensely helpful to real people, real families, all across this country,” Whitehouse said. “And they are true stories, they're human stories, and those I think are important stories for us to get out there. I think that that will add value.”

“We have got to look at the good things, and we've got to go out there and make it clear that it's something good for America,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, said on CBS.

Obama announced April 10 that he would nominate Burwell to succeed Sebelius, who drew criticism after the administration's health-care website didn't work for about two months last fall.

That period “was a pretty dismal time,” though the surge in enrollments in December was “very gratifying,” Sebelius said in an interview for NBC's “Meet the Press” program that aired Sunday.

Sebelius, who has served five years as HHS secretary, said she told Obama in early March that the end of the first health care enrollment period on March 31 would be the right time to initiate a leadership change at an agency that spent $886 billion in 2013, about one-fourth of all federal dollars.

“I think once we finish this first chapter you really should begin to look for the next secretary, who can be here through the end of your term,” Sebelius said of her conversation with Obama. “And that really wasn't a commitment I was willing to make. And he knew that.”

Burwell's nomination is subject to confirmation by the Senate, where Democrats control 55 of the 100 seats. The Senate last year confirmed Burwell for the OMB post on a 96-0 vote, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on Thursday on Twitter that Burwell was an “excellent choice” for HHS.

“I hope the Senate confirms Sylvia without delay,” Obama said then.

“There's no doubt that she was a good choice for OMB,” Scott said on Fox. “That does not necessarily make her a good choice for HHS.”

Whitehouse said Burwell “has a lot of goodwill on the Republican side, and she has a lot of experience and ability.”

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