By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Wednesday confirmed Marilyn Tavenner, a former nurse and hospital company executive, as the first full-fledged administrator for the Medicare and Medicaid healthcare programs since 2006.
In a rare show of bipartisanship on a healthcare issue, senators voted 91-7 to back President Barack Obama's nominee for administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), an $820 billion agency that oversees the bulk of federal healthcare spending and healthcare reform.
Tavenner has served as acting CMS administrator since late 2010. Her formal elevation comes at a time of mounting pressure on CMS as it acts to implement Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act by January 1. Medicare and Medicaid are also on the firing line for potential deficit reduction.
"Marilyn Tavenner has a reputation to be a pragmatist and a person who doesn't give up ... we need that type of leader at CMS," said Senator Max Baucus, Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, the oversight panel that approved her nomination two weeks ago.
Her confirmation is the first for a CMS administrator since Dr. Mark McClellan, who served under Republican President George W. Bush, left the job in 2006 after overseeing implementation of the Medicare prescription drug benefit.
Politics has since proved to be a barrier for candidates, including Tavenner herself, who was nominated but not confirmed during Obama's first term.
This time, she won accolades from Republicans for her practical approach to policy and her pledge to run CMS like a business.
Senator Orrin Hatch, the finance panel's top Republican, described CMS as "the world's largest insurer," noting the agency processes 1 billion claims a year on behalf of nearly 1-in-3 Americans - about 100 million elderly and disabled Medicare beneficiaires and low-income Medicaid recipients.
"This is a critical agency that needs a strong leader at the helm and, from what I've seen, Ms. Tavenner has the qualifications to be that kind of a leader," he said.
The vote was applauded by industry groups representing hospitals, physicians and health insurers.
Tavenner worked as a nurse in her native Virginia and became a hospital executive with Hospital Corporation of America. She later became Virginia's secretary of health and human resources before joining CMS, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Some lawmakers voted against her confirmation as a show of continuing opposition to the Obama healthcare law, which will face a new repeal vote in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Thursday.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who voted 'no,' said CMS' central role in implementing the reforms has changed the focus of the administrator's job.
"Ms. Tavenner is a smart, capable public servant. But protecting and strengthening Medicare and Medicaid deserve the full-time attention of a CMS administrator," he said in a statement.
Hatch said Tavenner's job could be complicated by a new controversy over efforts by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to encourage private donations to support Obama's reform law. Senate Republicans claim the actions could be illegal, a charge the administration denies. Republicans in the House of Representatives have launched an investigation.
Tavenner's nomination had also run afoul briefly on the Democratic side of the aisle before Wednesday's vote. Senator Tom Harkin, Democratic chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, delayed the process for two weeks to protest the administration's transfer of $460 million from a public health fund to finance the reform law's implementation.
(Reporting by David Morgan.; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz and Andre Grenon)