Following Friday’s resignation of Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, President Barack Obama named Sylvia Mathews Burwell, currently director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, to succeed her, a move being met with mixed reaction from the benefits industry.

Burwell was confirmed just last year as director of OMB and is well-received across party lines, which is largely expected to speed her confirmation as HHS Secretary, despite contentious partisan wrangling over HHS’ implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

With little health care experience, however, some industry insiders suggest her nomination is largely political and her Washington connections are meant to better serve the Obama administration’s ability to facilitate its agenda, including health care reform.

“The fact that she doesn’t have much health experience is not good for the industry but helpful to the Obama administration in that they can continue to place blame for the failed law on someone other than Obama,” says Kelly Fristoe, a broker at Financial Partners in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Going forward, he predicts the White House team will use Sebelius and her resignation “as an excuse for future problems with the law whether it be legit or not, instead of taking the responsibility themselves.”

Still many advisers are hopeful Burwell will improve strained communications between benefit advisers and HHS, as well as its subsidiary organization the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“I would prefer Ms. Burwell have direct health care experience but apparently she is a bright lady that has an impressive background: Harvard University, Rhodes Scholar and she spent some time at McKinsey Consulting, which is an exceptional business organization. So there is some justification for being optimistic,” says Tinker Kelly, president of VEBA and EBA Advisory Board member.

Rae Lee Olson, compliance officer for the employee benefits and administration group called Vita Companies, agrees, saying politics aside, “the public/private partnership to move [the ACA] forward, on a balanced basis, [is] the key to long term success.”

“We also believe that the American citizenry has grown weary of the constant degrading from both sides, and is seeking progress in gaining health care coverage for those in need.  At the core of this endeavor is the need to control the increasing cost and excessive utilization of medical care. We applaud Sebelius for her efforts in all of these areas, and we will continue to work with her successor to make this a mutual goal, for the benefit of all,” Olson says.

Spokeswoman Kathryn Gaglione of the National Association of Health Underwriters adds their hope, as well: “We will continue to work with the next secretary to ensure that all Americans continue to have access to professionally licensed health insurance agents and brokers.”

Burwell will have her work cut out for her as HHS prepares for the second ACA open-enrollment period starting in October, with hopes to improve the process and avoid the initial glitches that plagued Healthcare.gov.

Before joining the Obama White House, Burwell served as president of the Walmart Foundation. Before joining the Walmart Foundation in 2012, she was president of the Global Development Program at the Seattle-Wash.-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she worked for 10 years and was also the first chief operating officer. 

Burwell is also a veteran of the Clinton White House, having served in several positions during his presidency, including deputy director of the OMB, deputy chief of staff to the president, chief staff to the secretary of the Treasury and staff director of the National Economic Council.

Burwell has also serves the board of directors for MetLife and the Council on Foreign Relations.

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