National Press Club

HHS Secretary Burwell praises Affordable Care Act, discusses its future

January 9, 2017 | By Julia Haskins |

Sylvia Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services, speaks about the future of the Affordable Care Act at a National Press Club Luncheon, January 9, 2017.

Sylvia Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services, speaks about the future of the Affordable Care Act at a National Press Club Luncheon, January 9, 2017.

Photo/Image: Al Teich​

Coming up on her last few days as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Sylvia Burwell spoke at a National Press Club luncheon Jan. 9, extolling the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and warning against its repeal without a comprehensive, timely replacement.

The health care law resulted in numerous successes, the outgoing HHS Secretary said, pointing to expanded coverage that led to historically low uninsured rates. According to her, that momentum represents a stark difference to the period before the ACA was implemented.

“Today we can measure the nation’s progress with the Affordable Care Act,” she said.

Burwell praised the ACA for making health care more accessible to millions of Americans while simultaneously controlling costs.

“While we’ve made all this progress on access and quality, we’ve also been holding down health care cost growth,” Burwell said.

She invited several guests, all of whom had benefited either directly or indirectly from the ACA, to sit at the head luncheon table.

With President-elect Donald Trump poised to carry out major changes to the ACA, the prospect of repealing and replacing the health care law lies on the horizon. However, Burwell said she has yet to see a thorough plan to replace the ACA that adequately addresses the impact on access, quality and affordability.

“We believe that improvements need to be made in the Affordable Care Act,” Burwell said, adding she has not yet seen “a real plan.”

Policymakers who are exploring a replacement for the ACA, she said, must consider how many people it would cover, how it would protect quality of coverage and whether it would continue to positively bend the cost curve.

“If it fails at any of these, it is then a step backward,” Burwell said.

She also criticized delaying any form of replacement, arguing that such an action would only hurt consumers. Without a plan for replacement, Burwell said, experts estimate that 30 million Americans would lose health coverage. Further, a delay would force health insurance companies to increase prices or drop out of the marketplace, she warned, and state hospitals would face a budget impasse.

“Delaying tough choices isn’t what Americans get to do in their daily lives, and it’s not what they deserve” from lawmakers in Washington, D.C., Burwell said.

Despite political divisions, Burwell said the health care law offers those on both sides of the aisle reason to celebrate.

“I believed even with the deep partisanship that existed with the Affordable Care Act that there were places of common ground,” she said, predicting that issues such as precision medicine and cancer research will continue to receive strong bipartisan support.

Burwell advised Rep. Tom Price (R), Trump’s pick for her successor, to maintain a consumer-oriented focus at HHS.

“The most important thing is put the customer at the center of all the work that you do,” she said.

Burwell did not elaborate on her plans following the presidential inauguration, other than her priority to take her children to and from school.