WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama's Medicare nominee Tuesday got unexpected support from one of Congress' Republican stars. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told The Associated Press that Marilyn Tavenner is "eminently qualified" to run Medicare.
It may be too soon to contemplate a truce in the political wars over health care. With Tavenner, major players on both sides may be able to shift from confrontation to problem-solving.
The White House announced Tavenner's nomination last week to replace current Medicare chief Donald Berwick, who had run into a wall of opposition from Republicans and couldn't even get a hearing in the Senate. As head of Medicare and Medicaid, the former nurse would be responsible for programs that already provide coverage to 100 million Americans, as well as for putting in place the new health overhaul law to cover the uninsured.
Cantor said he met Tavenner years ago when he was a state legislator in Richmond, Va., and she was a senior executive for Hospital Corporation of America, a major hospital chain.
"She was an individual with a wealth of knowledge about the complexities of the health care system, and she came forward with solutions that actually made sense," said Cantor. "I always found her to be extremely professional and understanding of the value of the private sector in health care."
Tavenner, 60, is currently Medicare's principal deputy administrator. She started her career as a nurse and worked her way up to hospital executive before entering government service as Virginia's health care secretary. She came to Washington last year as Congress labored in the home stretch to pass Obama's health care law.
Cantor is not a member of the Senate, so he does not get a vote on Tavenner's nomination. But his views are influential with other conservatives.
"I would hope to be able to support her," said Cantor. "Obviously, I'm not in the Senate, so I don't have that vote, but I do think she is qualified. Obviously, she'll be working for a president with an agenda that's quite different from mine."
Cantor said he is convinced that Tavenner is committed to preserving the role of the private sector in health care. Responsibility for health coverage in the U.S. is close to evenly split between federal and state programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and workplace and private insurance. Republicans charge that Obama is trying to engineer a complete takeover by government, while the president insists his way is the best approach for preserving a system of shared responsibility in the face of unsustainable cost increases and millions of uninsured.
Tavenner "is somebody who understands the private sector and business concerns" said Cantor. "Marilyn Tavenner has experience as a nurse at the practical level, and as a health system administrator of a very larger national company. Hopefully she'll bring that type of experience."
Tavenner's nomination has been endorsed by groups representing hospitals, doctors and the health insurance industry. Some congressional Democrats may question her over her tenure at Hospital Corporation, which was embroiled in a major Medicare fraud investigation in the 1990s. None of that seems to have involved Tavenner, however.