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Sylvia Mathews Burwell to Replace Kathleen Sebelius

What Does Her Appointment Mean For Women?



Barack Obama and Sylvia Mathew Burwell

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Sylvia Mathews Burwell is President Obama’s pick to replace outgoing Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius. Who is she and what does her nomination suggest about the future of the Affordable Care Act and its connection to women?


Burwell is a native of West Virginia. She received degrees from both Harvard University and Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar. She and her husband Stephen live in Washington, DC with their two children.

Burwell has been the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) since last April 2013. Whitehouse.gov reports that she, “previously served as President of the Walmart Foundation. Before joining the Foundation in 2012, she was President of the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she worked for 10 years and was also the first Chief Operating Officer. During the Clinton Administration she served as Deputy Director of OMB, Deputy Chief of Staff to the President, Chief of Staff to the Secretary of the Treasury, and Staff Director of the National Economic Council. Before her Federal government service, she worked for McKinsey & Company. Burwell served on the Board of the Council on Foreign Relations and MetLife.”

During the time of her nomination to the OMB, President Obama noted that Burwell’s family background and her work history made her an ideal public servant that works with the economy. He noted that, “‘Sylvia knows her way around a budget…But as granddaughter of Greek immigrants, she also understands that our goal when we put together a budget is not just to make the numbers add up. Our goal is also to reignite the true engine of economic growth, and that is a strong growing middle class, to offer ladders of opportunity for anybody willing to climb them.’” Burwell’s supporters have routinely described her as a levelheaded go-getter who has thrived to create quite a successful career in business and finance in both the private and the public sector.

Of course, should Burwell’s nomination be approved, she has a tough road ahead of her. On the one hand, Politico notes that “Burwell will be lucky enough to start her job after the Affordable Care Act has gotten reasonably back on track, with 7.5 million sign-ups and lower-than-expected costs.” The Affordable Care Act has insured millions of Americans and is on board to change the face of healthcare in America as we know it. On the other hand, the Affordable Care Act is a very contentious piece of legislation, to put it mildly, and any government official associated with it will feel the wrath of Obamacare opponents.

For example, Burwell’s nomination is sure to be a point of contention with those on the Right, despite the fact that Republican lawmakers such as Paul Ryan and John McCain have both supported her in the past: “Republican senators don’t really object to Burwell. Not in the least. They’re not talking about her qualifications or her positions on the issues. Republican leaders just see it as another opportunity to — yet again — trumpet their opposition to the Affordable Care Act. They want to keep health-care reform on the front burner in the hopes it will sway voters in November. And they know that the longer the department goes without a leader, the harder it will be to successfully implement the next round of reform challenges.” (Source)

And what is Burwell’s connection to women’s issues?

She’s pro-choice and worked on issues of reproductive health throughout her career, especially in her work at the Wal-Mart and Gates Foundations, respectively. I think it’s safe to say that she will take this lens with her into her role as Secretary of Health and Human Services. However, as Kathleen Sebelius and others have undoubtedly learned, working in the Obama cabinet requires not only an abundance of fortitude, but also the willingness to comprise. Thus, Sylvia Mathew Burwell’s connection and commitment to women’s issues in her new capacity remains to be seen.


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