Obamacare’s Newest Chief to Face Big Challenges
Policy + Politics

Obamacare’s Newest Chief to Face Big Challenges

Pass the popcorn--it looks like it's going to be an even more interesting year for Obamacare.

The top official in charge of the law’s implementation – Marilyn Tavenner, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid –  announced this morning that she’s leaving her post in February. That is roughly the time when Obamacare’s second open enrollment period ends.

Related: GOP, with Dems’ Help, Takes First Swipe at Obamacare

Andy Slavitt, the CMS’s principal deputy administrator, will replace Tavenner as acting head of CMS, though he’ll need to be confirmed by the new GOP-controlled Senate before he is officially named administrator.

Tavenner, 63, joined CMS almost five years ago. She resigns after a brutal year at the agency, having managed Obamacare’s troubled rollout and testified before countless congressional hearings on everything from exchange enrollment numbers to Healthcare.gov’s persistent technical issues. Lawmakers and critics have routinely criticized her management of the federal website, which was barely functional on day one of Obamacare’s launch.

Others in the administration, however, have applauded her work and given her credit for the website’s repair efforts ahead of the law’s second open enrollment period.

Health and Human Services Secretary Burwell released a statement Friday about Tavenner’s successes at the agency. “Marilyn Tavenner has devoted five years and countless hours to the cause of improving health care quality, holding down costs, protecting the Medicare Trust Fund and expanding access to affordable health care coverage to millions of Americans,” Burwell said. “In so doing, she delivered historic results that have impacted countless lives — both today and for decades to come — all for the better.”

Related: Here’s What Might Happen if the Supreme Court Rules Against Obamacare

Tavenner exits the agency as Republicans take control of Congress and ramp up their efforts to repeal Obamacare, or at least some of its most unpopular provisions. Her resignation will also come just one month before the Supreme Court takes up the much-anticipated King v. Burwell, a case that has the potential to completely unravel the entire health care law.

The challenge centers on whether people using the federal exchange, Healthcare.gov, are eligible to receive subsidies, since the law stated that people are eligible for subsidies when they purchase health insurance on an exchange “established by the state.

The plaintiffs say that since the law doesn’t explicitly mention the federal exchange, those people aren’t legally eligible for subsidies. If the High Court sides with them, about 4.6 million people would have to pay more for health coverage unless Congress amends the law or more states set up their own exchanges.

King v. Burwell is seen as the biggest threat to Obamacare. Slavitt will inherit the potential responsibility of managing the backlash in an unfavorable ruling for the administration.

Slavitt joined the agency last June. He was previously the group executive vice president for Optum, where he was the top private official overseeing the daily repair efforts of Healthcare.gov. As Dan Diamond noted in Forbes, he will be the 14th person since 2000 to serve as head of CMS.

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