Medicare nominee is unknown to many on nervous K Street

Even though he has been at the Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) for 24 years, Kerry Weems is a stranger to much of K Street, which makes some healthcare lobbyists anxious about his nomination to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Lobbyists are keen to find out where Weems stands on many of the pressing policy issues facing the Medicare and Medicaid programs and CMS itself.

The job of CMS administrator has grown increasingly political, especially since the debate over creating the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit. In addition to overseeing the agency’s nearly $600 billion budget, the CMS administrator acts as a spokesman and a salesman for the White House’s political agenda.

Weems currently is deputy chief of staff to HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, but he is not viewed as a partisan and has not held policymaking positions in the department.

The nominee enjoys the support of many in the lobbying community, particularly among those who say they have firsthand experience working with him.

In addition, public statements from major trade groups have been positive.

For example, America’s Health Insurance Plans President and Chief Executive Karen Ignagni described Weems as “well equipped to help the federal government meet the needs of beneficiaries who depend on CMS.” National Association of Manufacturers Senior Vice President for Policy Jay Timmons noted, “Kerry Weems has an extensive background in health policy.”

But to others, Weems is an unknown quantity. He appears to lack clear GOP bona fides and direct experience managing government programs. Weems did, however, work for then-Sen. Jack Schmitt (R-N.M.) from 1981 to 1983.

Most of these lobbyists spoke on background out of concern that they would be perceived as criticizing the person who is in line to lead CMS.

Because Weems has not served in a policymaking capacity at HHS, many K Street Republicans say they are in the dark about his views on policy and political matters.

“An awful lot of people don’t know him,” said Tom Scully, who was CMS administrator from 2001 to 2003.
Leavitt is seen as the driving force behind Weems’s nomination, a point Scully said should assuage any doubts about Weems’s views on healthcare issues.

“The fact that Secretary Leavitt … has found him to be valuable is a pretty good testament to him,” Scully said. “There’s no question where his loyalties are. … He’s very loyal and the secretary trusts him,” said Scully, who is now a lobbyist at Alston & Bird and a partner at the investment firm Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe.

Most of the senior leadership team at CMS was in place before Leavitt came to HHS in 2005, replacing Tommy Thompson as secretary. Moving Weems from the secretary’s office to the head of CMS would give Leavitt a man on the spot at the agency that commands most of his department’s budget.

“He has the secretary’s corner. He’ll be the secretary’s person in that job,” as opposed to the White House’s, which will be an advantage to both Leavitt and Weems, said Nancy-Ann DeParle, who was the top Medicare and Medicaid official from 1997 to 2000 and currently is a senior adviser to J.P. Morgan Partners.

Several lobbyists who support Weems’s nomination said that, despite the heated politics of Medicare, CMS now needs an administrator who will focus on nuts-and-bolts program management. “The real issue is: Can he run the place? Absolutely,” Scully said.

Although some on K Street might view Weems’s lack of political experience as a handicap, his experience as a federal official under Republican and Democratic administrations could insulate him from some attacks as the Senate considers his nomination.

Senators, particularly on the Democratic side, likely will use the confirmation process as an opportunity to air their grievances about Medicare Part D and to ask Weems tough questions about how he would address some of the lingering problems CMS has experienced with implementing the program.

In his capacity as a budget official at HHS, Weems is more known to the appropriations committees and has testified numerous times to those panels about the administration’s budget requests. He is less well known on the panels that deal with Medicare and Medicaid.

Prior to being named Leavitt’s deputy chief of staff in 2005, Weems primarily worked on budget issues at HHS through four administrations.

President Bush nominated Weems to be assistant secretary for budget, technology and finance in July 2003 but withdrew the nomination six weeks later at Weems’s request because of an illness in his family. Weems served in the position in acting capacity until March 2005, when he became deputy chief of staff.

If confirmed, Weems would be the third CMS administrator to serve under Bush. After Scully left, Mark McClellan took over and was administrator until last October. Unlike Weems, Scully and McClellan had histories with Republican administrations. The GOP-run Senate confirmed both Scully and McClellan without a roll call vote.

CMS has been without a confirmed administrator since McClellan departed. In the interim, CMS Deputy Administrator Leslie Norwalk has been serving as acting administrator, a position she affirmed last week she would continue to hold while Weems’s nomination is pending in the Senate.