GOP tells Obama's HHS pick: 'Don't disappear'

Greg Nash

Senate Republicans sharpened their attacks on the Obama administration Wednesday while considering Sylvia Burwell's nomination for secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).

While the hearing was largely friendly to Burwell, GOP members of the Finance Committee repeatedly complained that federal health officials had not been responsive to their inquiries about the healthcare law.

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Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) called out Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Administrator Marilyn Tavenner by name.

Grassley said Tanner "seems to have gone into the witness protection program," Grassley told Burwell. "It's been so long since she was last in the chair or at my door. I hope you don't disappear into the same bunker."

Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the panel's ranking member, also told Burwell she should respond quickly to lawmakers' questions if she is confirmed.

The questions underscored the frayed relationship between Republican senators and federal health officials, including outgoing HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, over the rollout of ObamaCare.

The comments also produced a more serious confirmation hearing for Burwell compared to a a separate review held last week by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Still, Burwell appeared headed for an easy confirmation after receiving effusive praise from both sides of the aisle.

The Finance Committee will vote on her nomination in a later hearing, and after that, Senate Democrats will have more than enough votes to confirm her on the floor.

"She's competent," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who made a special cameo appearance Wednesday to introduce Burwell before her testimony.

"She has an outstanding character, and I've experienced that … She's a great listener, and she comes to Washington with a lot of common sense."

Burwell now leads the White House budget office and was nominated to lead HHS after Sebelius announced in April that she would step down.

While no Republican questioned her qualifications, several of them used the hearing to press Burwell about the healthcare law.

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) urged Burwell to support reversing ObamaCare's cuts to private Medicare Advantage plans. "The question of the additional changes need to be monitored and watched," Burwell replied.

In another, Crapo asked if she would extend the current "keep your plan" fix for another year, allowing people to maintain health coverage that does not meet ObamaCare's minimum coverage requirements.

"I think we have made all the decisions and announcements that will take us through the next enrollment season," Burwell said. "One of the things that is important is how we do common-sense implementation that works for people."

Republicans did manage to secure a promise from Burwell that she would support using the "full extent of the law" to pull back funds misused in the botched rollout of some state-based exchanges.

"We have to understand what went wrong, we need to go to the full extent of the law if there are contractors or others that have misled [the government], to fully recover [the money]," Burwell said.

The comment follows the introduction of Republican legislation Wednesday demanding that state officials who hand control of their exchanges to HealthCare.gov repay the federal government any funds used to create the original, flawed enrollment systems.

— This story was updated at 5:12 p.m.