Sylvia Mathews Burwell, poised to become President Barack Obama’s new health secretary, met little opposition and much praise at the final hearing before the Senate votes on her confirmation.
Burwell, the head of the Office of Management and Budget, faces votes by the Senate Finance Committee and the full Senate. She is set to replace the current secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, Kathleen Sebelius, whose resignation was announced April 10 after the first Obamacare enrollment period had concluded.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, thanked Burwell "for her willingness to serve."
"You will have your work cut out for you," he told her at Wednesday’s Finance Committee hearing.
Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, introduced Burwell to the committee and recommended her confirmation.
"When you have someone who is competent and also has strong character you find a way to get past your differences and try to solve problems," he said.
The health department has an annual budget of about $960 billion including Medicare, the program for the elderly and disabled, and Medicaid, the state-run program for the poor. Burwell will also serve as Obama's top administrator for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, the $1.4 trillion expansion of health insurance that has so far enrolled about 8 million Americans in private coverage.
Access to care, affordability and health-care quality "seem to me to be the north stars" of the law, Burwell said. She said she would "work to try to maximize against all three of those areas and think about the ways that we can do better."
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from Burwell’s home state of West Virginia, opened the hearing by saying, "We need you, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, very, very much."
Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said Sebelius had damaged relationships with his party by seeming to implement the Affordable Care Act in cavalier style, without consulting Congress.
"If you want to change the relationship the department has with Congress you're going to have to be willing to break the 'by any means necessary' mindset that we've seen for the last five years," Grassley told Burwell. "Do you think it is possible for you to change the 'by any means' culture at HHS that some of us in Congress view as borderline lawless?"
Burwell said she hoped he would call her directly with concerns.
"I take the issues very seriously," she said. "This is a space where I actually hope there will be direct communication if there are concerns."
© Copyright 2014 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.