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Trump pick Seema Verma sworn in to head Medicare and Medicaid

UPDATE, 12/14/17: The federal agency that oversees health insurance programs for tens of millions of American consumers has a new leader.

Vice President Mike Pence has sworn in Seema Verma as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. The $1 trillion agency oversees health insurance programs for everyone from nursing home residents to newborns.

Verma is taking over the agency as a Republican health care bill moving through the House that’s backed by President Donald Trump has reopened the debate over the government’s role in health care.

Verma is an Indiana health care consultant and protege of Pence, who is a former Indiana governor.

The Senate confirmed her nomination Monday by a vote of 55-43, largely along party lines.

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s pick to run Medicare and Medicaid won confirmation Monday from a divided Senate as lawmakers braced for another epic battle over the government’s role in health care and society’s responsibility toward the vulnerable.

Indiana health care consultant Seema Verma, a protégé of Vice President Mike Pence, was approved by a 55-43 vote, largely along party lines. She’ll head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a $1 trillion agency that oversees health insurance programs for more than 130 million people, from elderly nursing home residents to newborns. It’s part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Verma, a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from India, takes over at CMS with the agency facing sweeping changes under the House Republican health care bill backed by Trump.

That legislation would roll back key elements of former President Barack Obama’s health care law, including its Medicaid expansion for low-income people. More significantly, the GOP bill would limit overall federal financing for Medicaid in the future. Taken together, those changes could reverse the Obama era’s historic health insurance gains.

With a background in public health, Verma says she wants government programs to improve health, not just pay bills. She’s been critical of Medicaid, saying “the status quo is not acceptable” for the federal-state insurance program that covers more than 70 million low-income people.

In Indiana, Verma designed a Medicaid expansion along conservative lines for Pence. Most beneficiaries are required to pay modest premiums. And the program uses financial rewards and penalties to steer patients to primary care providers instead of the emergency room. Critics say the plan has been confusing for beneficiaries and some have incurred penalties through no fault of their own.

At her Senate confirmation hearing, Verma defended her approach by saying that low-income people are fully capable of making health care decisions based on rational incentives.

She also said she does not support turning Medicare into a voucher plan under which retirees would get a fixed federal contribution to purchase private coverage from government-regulated private insurance plans. Her boss, HHS Secretary Tom Price, is a prominent advocate of such an approach. Medicare covers more than 56 million seniors and disabled people.

Some state officials are welcoming Verma’s arrival as a sign that Medicaid has come of age at an agency where it traditionally came in second to Medicare.

With Verma’s confirmation and Price as health secretary, Trump has two of the most senior HHS officials in place. Last Friday, the president nominated Dr. Scott Gottlieb to run the Food and Drug Administration. Nonetheless, many senior political appointee positions at HHS remain unfilled.

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