Players to watch: Health

Welcome to The Hill’s Players to Watch special report for fall 2014.

The lawmakers, administration officials and power brokers listed here will play enormous roles in the policies and politics that take place over the next several months.

There are many big questions facing the White House and the divided Congress: Will lawmakers agree on a government funding bill that averts another shutdown? Will the controversial Export-Import Bank be reauthorized? Which party will control the Senate in 2015? How will the White House exert its administrative power? Will the administration scrap the ObamaCare employer mandate? What steps will be taken to counter the rise of the Islamic
State in Iraq and Syria, and what will Congress’s role be?


Our reporters and editors have selected the most important people among the thousands who are working on this autumn’s hot issues. The decisions made by these newsmakers will affect the U.S. in many ways, both domestically and abroad.

The list of players includes leadership lawmakers, committee chairmen, Cabinet officials, regulators, foreign leaders and campaign operatives.

Rep. John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerMeadows joins White House in crisis mode Meadows set to resign from Congress as he moves to White House The Pelosi administration MORE (R-Ohio), speaker of the House of Representatives

All eyes will be on BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerMeadows joins White House in crisis mode Meadows set to resign from Congress as he moves to White House The Pelosi administration MORE this fall as he works to prosecute a legal and political case against President Obama’s executive actions. Just prior to its August recess, the House authorized a lawsuit against Obama’s delay of the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate, and the Speaker’s team is now trying to discern which legal strategy will yield the most success. At the heart of the lawsuit is Republicans’ complaint that Obama has not faithfully enforced laws like ObamaCare, given the administration’s long list of regulatory delays. Scholars believe that, as a legal case, the lawsuit has little chance of traction, but it could still serve to rally the conservative base before the November elections. “This isn’t about Republicans versus Democrats. It’s about the Constitution versus unconstitutional and unilateral actions by the executive branch, and protecting our democracy,” Boehner said in late July.

Brendan Buck, lead spokesman at America's Health Insurance Plans; Robert Zirkelbach, senior vice president at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America


Washington’s biggest healthcare fight might no longer be between the White House and congressional Republicans. Two major industry groups — one representing health insurance companies and the other representing drugmakers — have been battling it out over the price of specialty drugs since ObamaCare receded from the headlines this spring. Buck argues that Big Pharma is gouging patients and insurers with drugs that cost a thousand dollars per pill, like hepatitis C treatment Sovaldi. Zirkelbach, a former AHIP spokesman, argues high prices are necessary to make sophisticated drugs that will save patients and ultimately lower spending in the healthcare system. It’s expected to be a bruising fight for public opinion with healthcare costs in the news and more specialty drugs coming down the pipeline.

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, secretary of Health and Human Services

Burwell will face her first big test in November when ObamaCare’s health insurance exchanges open for 2015 enrollment. The last sign-up period — an epic debacle for the administration — still elicits shudders at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), where Burwell took the reins in early June. The private sector executive and former Clinton administration official was hired to bring order to the department, shore up the enrollment systems and help the White House avoid another public relations nightmare. As a result, Burwell is packing her management team with other private sector and Clinton alums, and she has hired Kevin Counihan as the first chief executive officer for, the main sign-up hub. But whether all the trains will run on time starting Nov. 15 is still the big question. Burwell is also under pressure to strengthen communication between HHS and Capitol Hill after lawmakers complained that her predecessor, Kathleen SebeliusKathleen SebeliusJerry Moran: 'I wouldn't be surprised' if Pompeo ran for Senate in Kansas Mark Halperin inks book deal 2020 Democrats fight to claim Obama's mantle on health care MORE, left them in the dark.

Mikey Dickerson, head of the New U.S. Digital Service

Dickerson will help make or break the Obama administration’s effort to up its technology game after the disastrous launch of last fall. The former Google engineer was part of the team that pulled the website back from the brink, and he’s now charged with fixing other government sites. Improving the “user experience” is a big task when it comes to the dot-gov platform, but an even bigger challenge for the Obama campaign alum could be waiting in the wings when ObamaCare’s second enrollment period tests his solutions. Dickerson’s team will also be small, likely no more than 25 people, with a budget of a few million dollars. In the meantime, his transition to Washington’s starchy halls of political power has been widely documented: Whether his rumpled, casual clothing would survive a job at the White House received its own piece in The Washington Post.


Tom Frieden, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director

Frieden would be on the front lines if a case of the Ebola virus were to arrive undetected in the United States. This possibility, though slim, is on the minds of federal health officials as the Ebola outbreak worsens in several Western African nations. The hemorrhagic illness has caused significant unrest in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, where soldiers faced off against residents to try to preserve a quarantine there. In at least three other countries, the death toll is rising as healthcare workers contract the virus from their patients. Frieden has spearheaded the U.S. response to the virus, one of the largest efforts by any party to contain its spread, by sending teams of CDC personnel to the region to focus on containment. He has also been one of the most vocal defenders of that approach, as calls arise for U.S. companies to send experimental treatments overseas. “We are not at this time going to treat our way out of this,” Frieden told one Atlanta radio station in mid-August.

— Elise Viebeck