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Medicare chief relies on bipartisan goodwill to weather Obamacare storm

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Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Barack Obama,Obamacare,Health and Human Services,Health Care,Medicare and Medicaid,PennAve,House Ways and Means Committee,Kathleen Sebelius

The honeymoon didn’t last long for Marilyn Tavenner.

After years of flying under the political radar -- and just months after her confirmation as President Obama's administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) -- the former Virginia health secretary is at the center of the storm over the botched rollout of Obamacare's public health exchanges.

AS CMS administrator, Tavenner holds the unenviable task of running the president's signature domestic initiative. She's in charge of establishing federal insurance marketplaces, registering consumers, supervising state exchanges and managing the Medicaid expansion.

Tavenner was the first administration official to testify on Capitol Hill about the tech glitches plaguing the online insurance marketplaces, and she gave Republicans a long-sought mea culpa.

“I want to apologize to you that the website has not worked as well as it should,” Tavenner told the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday.

“This website has not lived up to our expectations or the expectations of the American people," she added.

As Congress probes the website's problems, it remains to be seen if Tavenner will be viewed as someone with an impossible task -- and simply taking marching orders from Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius -- or as a chief architect of the flawed rollout.

Lawmakers and those who worked with Tavenner praised her managerial chops ahead of an emphatic 91-7 confirmation vote last May in the Senate. Over her career, Tavenner earned the trust of those on both sides of the aisles, building goodwill that could help her survive the challenges ahead.

Tavenner, 62, began her career as a nurse and rose to become chief executive officer at her Richmond, Va., hospital before taking a national post with the parent company, the Hospital Corporation of America. She later served as health secretary under former Gov. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

Tavenner’s first job in the Obama administration was as CMS deputy administrator, which served as her launching pad to the top position at the nearly trillion-dollar federal agency.

With Tavenner at the helm, CMS was supposed to provide the foundation for a law that would fundamentally change how health insurance is delivered to the public. Instead, the Obamacare website was mocked on “Saturday Night Live” and has been seized by Republicans as proof that Obama's health plan is a “train wreck.”

Even some who have worked for the president fear the fallout could hurt Tavenner.

“Look, there’s plenty of blame to go around, but you can’t excuse her,” one former senior administration official said. “She was responsible for the website and it went terribly wrong. This isn’t the type of thing she can just easily shake off — she’s got a lot on the line here, too.”

Ahead of the October launch, Tavenner gave no indication of looming problems with Healthcare.gov.

“I went into work Sunday because I was actually having problems with my BlackBerry and some synchronization — so that should really make you feel good about the exchanges and the marketplace,” she jokingly told the trade group, America's Health Insurance Plans, just a week before the website went live.

Others say that Tavenner is not the target of GOP lawmakers, who are focused on the health-care law and Sebelius’ role. Many have demanded that Sebelius step down — unlikely because it would be next to impossible to get a successor in place without bloody confirmation hearings.

Some in GOP leadership, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who represented the Richmond area where Tavenner ran a hospital, have been careful not to direct criticism at the CMS chief.

“Tavenner's recent appointment was encouraging but this law is unfixable,” Rory Cooper, Cantor’s communications director, said. “More concerning is Secretary Sebelius’ mismanagement since Obamacare became law."

Other Republicans echoed that sentiment, even while hammering the administration after a brutal first month for the online marketplaces.

“You’ve got a great reputation,” Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, told Tavenner during the Ways and Means hearing.

Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., added that Tavenner had demonstrated a “very high level of competence.”

And in the same hearing, Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, proclaimed, “I have a great deal of respect for you — and I believe a lot of Republicans do.”

At no point did GOP leaders call for the resignation of Tavenner.

CMS declined to make Tavenner available for an interview with the Washington Examiner. And officials did not answer a list of questions by email about how Tavenner views the agency’s role in the future.

The White House ordered a “tech surge” and tapped former Office of Management and Budget Director Jeff Zients as its point man to cure the ailing website, which he vowed would be running “smoothly” by December.

CMS says they will continue to coordinate efforts to get the website fully operational but clearly the reinforcements diminish both the agency’s and Tavenner’s role in the process.

And some wonder whether the White House is setting up Tavenner to take the brunt of the blame for the problem-plagued Obamacare website.

“The Obama administration has a long record of finding scapegoats below the cabinet level and avoiding accountability,” a senior GOP aide said. “I hope that doesn’t happen here.”

If the White House looks for someone to take the fall for Obamacare’s tech issues, an admission by Tavenner on Capitol Hill might aid their decision.

“Yes,” she said, “I’m in charge of the program."

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Brian Hughes

White House Correspondent
The Washington Examiner