(Recasts first paragraph and throughout to focus on single
By David Morgan and Julia Edwards
WASHINGTON May 8 U.S. Health Secretary-nominee
Sylvia Mathews Burwell sought to allay a major Republican worry
about Obamacare on Thursday, telling lawmakers that President
Barack Obama's reforms would not lead to a government-run
single-payer healthcare system on her watch.
Her assurance against an approach reviled by Republicans and
industry leaders came during a two-hour Senate confirmation
hearing at which Burwell received an important endorsement from
Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina. Burr sits on
the Senate Finance Committee, which will decide whether to send
her nomination to the floor for a final vote.
"I will vote for her in the Finance Committee," Burr said in
the latest sign that Burwell's nomination is in for a smooth
confirmation ride through the Senate. "I look forward to her
confirmation being quick and our ability to then work together
to be every bit as quick."
A widely respected technocrat known as an effective
problem-solver, Burwell also won the backing of the health
insurance industry's powerful lobbying and trade group,
America's Health Insurance Plans, which described her in a
statement as "uniquely qualified" to lead the Department of
Health and Human Services.
Burwell appeared on Thursday before the Senate Health,
Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for her first of two
hearings. The Finance Committee has yet to set a date for its
proceedings, but Democrats who control the Senate hope to have
her confirmation wrapped up before the U.S. Memorial Day holiday
on May 26.
Obamacare is intended to extend subsidized health coverage
to millions of uninsured Americans through new online private
insurance markets and an expansion of the Medicaid program for
the poor. Nearly 13 million enrolled in coverage for 2014,
including over 8 million through the private insurance markets
known as exchanges, according to the administration.
Foes of the law have long vilified it as a ploy for moving
the $3 trillion U.S. health system to a single-payer format run
by the federal government instead of the private sector, a claim
that has gained new life in this year's congressional election
Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas asked Burwell if
such a move was her "endgame," citing top Democrats, including
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, as having endorsed the idea.
But Burwell reminded Roberts that the centerpiece of
Obamacare is a private market-based insurance system of
state-based health insurance exchanges.
"That's what the exchanges are," she told Roberts. "I look
forward to, if confirmed, making that system work as efficiently
and effectively as possible, both in terms of cost and access."
While still under questioning by Roberts, Burwell sought to
ease another conservative fear: the Independent Payment Advisory
Board, or IPAB, a 15-member government panel maligned by
Republicans as a "death panel" because of its intended role in
trimming costs within Medicare, the government healthcare
program for the elderly and disabled.
Burwell told lawmakers that the board is unlikely to be
activated - board members have not been appointed - during her
tenure because Medicare costs are expected to remain below
target rates needed to trigger its operation.
Burwell used Thursday's hearing to promise a fresh
bipartisan approach to Congress that would build on efforts to
reach across the aisle that she initiated during her current job
as White House budget director.
"I am hopeful that we will have the opportunity to continue
to work together closely in the months ahead to deliver impact
for the American people," she said.
Her bipartisan appeal ran into tough questioning from the
panel's top Republican, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee,
who underscored the Republican Party's intention to capture the
Senate in the November elections and get rid of Obamacare.
"Ms. Burwell, you have a reputation for competence. And I
would respectfully suggest you're going to need it," Alexander
said. "The only thing that will be bipartisan about (Obamacare)
will be the opposition to it."
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Caren Bohan and Dan