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Senate Finance meets, greets HHS nominee

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(Bloomberg) — Sylvia Mathews Burwell, poised to become President Barack Obama’s new Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary, met little opposition and much praise today at the final hearing before the Senate starts to vote on her confirmation.

Burwell, a former MetLife board member and the head of the Office of Management and Budget, faces votes by the Senate Finance Committee and the full Senate.

She is on track to replace the current HHS secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, who announced her resignation April 10.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, thanked Burwell “for her willingness to serve.”

“You will have your work cut out for you,” he told her at today’s Finance Committee hearing.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., introduced Burwell to the committee and recommended her confirmation.

“When you have someone who is competent and also has strong character you find a way to get past your differences and try to solve problems,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has an annual budget of about $960 billion.

In addition to overseeing implementation of the $1.4 trillion Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) coverage expansion provisions, the department oversees Medicare and Medicaid.

Access to care, affordability and health-care quality “seem to me to be the north stars” of PPACA, Burwell said at the hearing.

Burwell said she would “work to try to maximize against all three of those areas and think about the ways that we can do better.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from Burwell’s home state of West Virginia, opened the hearing by saying, “We need you, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, very, very much.”

Sen. Charles Grassley, R- Iowa, said Sebelius had damaged relationships with his party by seeming to implement PPACA in cavalier style, without consulting Congress.

“If you want to change the relationship the department has with Congress you’re going to have to be willing to break the ‘by any means necessary’ mindset that we’ve seen for the last five years,” Grassley told Burwell. “Do you think it is possible for you to change the ‘by any means’ culture at HHS that some of us in Congress view as borderline lawless?”

Burwell said she hoped he would call her directly with concerns.

“I take the issues very seriously,” she said. “This is a space where I actually hope there will be direct communication if there are concerns.”

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