New HHS head confirmed by Senate

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for several major initiatives of the last decade that have transformed the way health care professionals work and patients are treated. The first electronic health record systems made their way into the industry in the early 2000s, and EHR software has been a fixture of the HHS' health IT programs ever since. The oft-criticized and recently delayed ICD-10 transition also fell under the purview of the HHS and its subsidiaries, while the troubled start to was the final straw that caused the resignation of former HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

However, June 5 marked a new day in HHS history as Sylvia Mathews Burwell was confirmed as the new secretary of the HHS by a majority vote in the Senate, the Washington Post reported. Burwell previously helmed the Office of Management and Budget since April 2013 and was tapped by President Barack Obama to bring a more direct and business-oriented approach to the initiatives that now fall under her jurisdiction. Though experts do not expect Burwell to make any sweeping changes to previous HHS policies, health care professionals continue to wait for insight into where she will lead the agency in the future.

Getting to know Burwell
Throughout the confirmation proceedings, Democrats and Republicans alike praised Burwell for her long history of public service and demonstrated competence in all her previous positions. Before becoming the 22nd secretary of the HHS, Burwell served as director of the OMB and at various positions in the Clinton administration, culminating in her role as White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy from January 1997 to May 1998. Prior to public office, Burwell occupied leadership roles in philanthropy at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walmart Foundation.

Though parts of Burwell's confirmation hearing were interrupted by politicians' criticisms of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, few senators had direct complaints about Burwell herself. The confirmation passed by a 78 to 17 margin, with five abstentions. Burwell's nomination received bipartisan support, with 52 Democrats and 24 Republicans voting in favor of her confirmation.

How Burwell will change the HHS
Little is known about the direction Burwell plans to take her new department, but during confirmation proceedings, the former OMB director said that while the preponderance of medical data stored in EHR systems is a valuable resource, that information needs to be contextualized before it can be leveraged to improve patient care.

"I think information on markets is an important thing and the better off we are when we can get it to both individuals as well as the providers," Burwell said during testimony in May, as quoted by Health Data Management. "I believe this is an important part of both quality and costs and it's important for individuals, insurers and doctors."

Burwell will not have to wait long to showcase her leadership abilities as part of her new role. She will be called to testify June 10 as part of a hearing for the House Ways and Means health subcommittee, reported. The hearing will investigate demographic and income discrepancies in information consumers submitted to during the site's open enrollment period. Problems with the launch of the site led to the resignation of Burwell's predecessor, and the new secretary will have little time to familiarize herself with the data and history of the ACA's most visible patient-facing program.

Health care professionals are sure to be paying attention as Burwell steps to the podium June 10 in her first official appearance as HHS secretary.