Burwell Extends Olive Branch to Congress on Everything but the ACA

Several potential areas of common ground between HHS and the new Republican-led Congress were discussed by HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell at the New America Foundation. Although Burwell expressed an expectation that Congress and HHS could work together successfully on several issues—including Medicare, Medicaid, opioid abuse, Ebola, and drug development—Burwell made clear that she had no intention of backing away from her support of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148).


Burwell’s comments seemingly took discussions about the ACA off the table. Burwell said, “I also hope that we can move beyond the back and forth of the Affordable Care Act and focus on the substance of access, affordability and quality.” She expressed her opinion that “the law is working” and that she would continue to “be vigorous in making the case.” Burwell also encouraged states that have not yet expanded Medicaid under the ACA to join those that have.


The HHS Secretary made several comments about the importance of addressing the growing problem of opioid abuse. Burwell’s remarks were premised on the understanding that opioid use and abuse is rising at record-breaking rates. She indicated that in 2012, 259 million opioid prescriptions were written—enough for every American adult to have a bottle. Similarly, in 2009 drug overdoses outnumbered car crash fatalities for the first time. To address the rising figures, Burwell called on Congress to address opioid prescription practices and to incentivize the production of abuse deterrent medications.


Burwell thanked Congress for making efforts to stop the global Ebola crisis at its source. Specifically, Burwell commended Congress by responding to the Ebola crisis by investing $597 million towards global health security. She also lauded the efforts of the U.S. and other countries for working together to stop outbreaks like Ebola before they become pandemics.


Another area that Burwell encouraged Congress to facilitate is innovation and science in medicine. She acknowledged that Congress itself was aware of the bipartisan need to accelerate and further innovations for vaccines, cures, therapies, and rapid diagnostics. Burwell placed particular emphasis on working with Congress to achieve more in the area of precision medicine, or diagnostic and treatment methods that are tailored to the individual and genetic characteristics of a patient.


According to a story from Kaiser Health News, despite Burwell’s comments regarding a strong stance on the ACA, HHS can expect to work successfully with senators and representatives from both sides of the aisle. For example, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn) said that “we have plenty we disagree on, but we also have plenty of issues that are important to millions of Americans upon which we should be able to get results, including, for example, getting life-saving drugs, treatments and devices through the FDA to patients faster; remodeling the health care delivery system; and improving global health security.”