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With Nomination in Limbo, Acting CMS Head to Testify on CO-OPs

By Melissa Attias, CQ Roll Call

January 14, 2016 -- President Barack Obama’s pick to head the Medicare and Medicaid programs is slated to testify next week about health insurance CO-OP failures before the same Senate panel that has not acted on his nomination since it was put forward six months ago.

Andy Slavitt, acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), is due before the Finance Committee at a Jan. 21 hearing examining CO-OPs established under the 2010 overhaul. A branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), CMS is the main federal agency implementing the health law, in addition to running the two big government health programs.

Obama nominated Slavitt to officially fill the post in July and a Finance aide said the panel received his paperwork from the administration in early September, which kicked off the vetting process. Little has been said by either party in the months since, however, with Republicans focused on using the budget reconciliation process to send legislation (HR 3762) dismantling the health law to Obama rather than moving forward with a nomination hearing to rehash its setbacks.

Slavitt previously worked for federal contractor Optum, which was involved with building the online system of insurance marketplaces established by the health law and fixing the federal exchange after a rocky launch in October 2013.

Asked about the status of Slavitt’s nomination, Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, told CQ Roll Call that his committee will probably hold a hearing but that he wasn’t aware of anything imminent.

"You know, I haven’t even looked at that recently," Hatch said.

Spokesman Aaron Fobes added in an email that Slavitt is "undergoing the Finance Committee's bipartisan vetting process" without offering a timeline. That process likely includes questions about conflicts of interest between CMS and Slavitt’s former employee—a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group—that have been previously raised by Hatch and Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa.

Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Finance panel, said he talks to Slavitt regularly and that he’s been very accessible. Spokesman Taylor Harvey said by email that Wyden is "eager" to have Slavitt before the committee and confirmed as soon as possible.

Last month, Slavitt testified before the House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee about efforts to recoup misspent federal dollars invested in the state-run health insurance exchanges. House Republicans also held hearings to probe the collapse of a series of nonprofit insurance CO-OPs while GOP Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska had a hold on HHS nominees for nearly two months in an effort to get additional information.

The CO-OPs were included in the health care law as a compromise among Democrats after it became clear that supporters of a government-run health insurer would not prevail. At least a dozen CO-OPs funded under the law have failed.

Another Obama health care nominee has had better luck advancing, though he still lacks a clear path through the Senate. The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee advanced the nomination of Robert Califf to lead the Food and Drug Administration by voice vote Tuesday, but Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski plans to block full Senate consideration unless the agency responds to her concerns about genetically engineered salmon.

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