Head of federal agency overseeing Medicare and Medicaid steps down

Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington last month. Tavenner stepped down Friday.
(Molly Riley / Associated Press)

Marilyn Tavenner, who oversees the nation’s Medicare and Medicaid programs and played a central role in implementing the Affordable Care Act, is stepping down.

Tavenner, a former hospital executive and Virginia health secretary, was appointed interim head of the sprawling Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a division of the Department of the Health and Human Services, in 2011.

Two years later, she became the first CMS administrator to win Senate confirmation since 2006. The vote was 91-7.


She announced her departure in an email sent to staff.

Her chief deputy, former health insurance executive Andy Slavitt, will become acting CMS administrator after Tavenner leaves next month, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell announced Friday.

Though one of the most senior officials involved in the botched rollout of the website in 2013, Tavenner never drew as much fire as her boss at the time, former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who resigned last year.

The agency has been widely credited this year with overseeing a far smoother enrollment period under the federal health law, as millions of Americans have been signing up for health coverage since November.

Tavenner angered some congressional Republicans who have demanded more transparency from her agency, particularly over enrollment tallies. Last fall, CMS conceded that it had erroneously overstated enrollment figures.

On Friday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), the former chairman of the House oversight committee, called that “a deplorable example of an agency trying to scam the American people.”

And in a statement Friday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), whose committee oversees the Medicare and Medicaid programs, strongly praised Tavenner.


“Marilyn has done a great job in a very difficult position under near-impossible circumstances. She has proven herself to be a strong leader and a straight shooter who brought in much-needed private sector sensibility into the agency,” Hatch said.

Tavenner was nominated for the post in 2011. But with Democrats and Republicans at loggerheads over Obama’s 2010 healthcare law, it was unclear if she would ever get a confirmation vote.

As CMS administrator, Tavenner oversaw government health insurance programs that cover more than 100 million Americans every year.

Obama’s first choice to head the powerful health agency, Dr. Donald Berwick, a widely respected pediatrician and leading advocate for patient safety, was blocked by GOP lawmakers opposed to the law. Because he was never confirmed, Berwick had to step down after just a year and a half.