US Health Secretary Defends Affordable Care Act

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell defended the increase of Affordable Care Act midlevel premiums by an average of 25 percent next year, citing the benefits of the health care program for millions of Americans who were uninsured in 2010 in Gaston Hall on Wednesday.

“One in seven Americans did not have insurance,” Burwell said. “Twenty million more Americans now have insurance. We have the lowest uninsured rate in the history of our nation. That’s access.”

Burwell was the guest of the third Exit Interview, a six-part series created by the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service to examine the political and policy record of President Barack Obama.

McCourt School professor Judy Feder introduced Burwell by praising the Affordable Care Act’s extension of health coverage to nearly 20 million Americans, but conceding that the next administration will face unresolved problems, including the widening Medicaid coverage gap.

“Tonight, with Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, our focus is on health reform and health care — safe to say, one of the biggest challenges this administration has faced, both politically and operationally,” Feder said. “When President Obama came into office, we were approaching having 50 million people without health insurance.”

McCourt School of Public Policy professor E.J. Dionne Jr., who also serves as a GU Politics board member, moderated the event. Previously, The Exit Interview”has featured National Security Adviser Susan Rice on Sept. 14 and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Oct. 13.

Burwell said she was most proud of her work transforming the U.S. health care system through the 2010 Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, which expanded Medicaid eligibility and offered cost assistance for the uninsured through health insurance marketplaces.

“The work that we’ve done there and the impact that we’ve had there, that I’ve contributed to, is probably one of the things I’m most proud of,” she said. “The Affordable Care Act is about three things: affordability, access and quality. … When we think about where we are, I think it is important to think about where we were and where we are now.”

Burwell discussed how her past experience as the White House deputy chief of staff under President Bill Clinton prepared her for the demanding aspects of the job. However, she said she was still taken aback at the fast-paced nature of her job, especially during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

Burwell further addressed solutions to the current state of the American opioid abuse crisis, noting that 250 million opioid prescriptions were given in 2014 in the United States. She discussed her department’s strategy for tackling the opioid epidemic, which includes revising the guidelines whereby doctors prescribe opioids and monitoring whether doctors are prescribing opioids responsibly.

“In terms of the problem, the administration has been working on it over a period of time in lots of pieces and parts across different parts,” Burwell said. “Our strategy is based on three things. One is controlling the prescribing — that’s how many of the drugs are getting out to people. And so this is about helping doctors.”

The other two priorities of the Department of Health and Human Services are to increase the use of drugs combatting the effects of opioid use, especially overuse, and to expand the medication-assisted treatment, which is a combination of behavioral therapies and medication to treat opioid overuse.

Burwell concluded by discussing how her faith as a Greek Orthodox Episcopalian has shaped her career.

“In my work, that’s an important part of it — thinking about the world and how Christ turned things on its head, in terms of who he was helping and who he was being connected to,” Burwell said. “So [my faith] is something that is an important part of how I think about my work, both in terms of what I do and how I do it.”

John Davis (NHS ’17), who attended the event, said the interview helped elucidate many aspects of the Affordable Care Act for him.

“There are definitely a lot of aspects of the ACA that I was not aware of previously, such as the fact that young adults can stay on their parents’ plan until they are 26 and also the annual and lifetime limits that a lot of people were reaching,” Davis said. “I’m looking forward to seeing the work that [Burwell] is going to do in the future.”

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