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The Hardest Job To Fill (And Keep) In Washington: CMS Chief

President Obama is fighting to save his signature health law on two fronts: in the Supreme Court and on the campaign trail, where Republican candidates are promising to kill the Affordable Care Act.

Yet even if the president prevails, he faces another daunting challenge: implementing the law in a seamless, timely manner. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is charged with making the health law work, drafting regulations, setting up new programs and providing oversight. But for years Congress has undermined the agency’s leadership and potential effectiveness, raising questions about its capabilities and resources even as the health law ramps up its responsibilities.

For starters: consider the revolving door leadership at CMS.

Since its creation in 1977 as the Health Care Financing Administration, the agency has had 29 administrators in 35 years – an average tenure of just 14 months. The longest-serving administrator held the job for four years and five months. The shortest: two months.

The most recent CMS administrator, Dr. Donald Berwick, resigned in December after 16 months. His replacement, Marilyn Tavenner, currently holds the title of acting administrator. That’s hardly uncommon.

Acting administrators have run the agency 20 percent of the time. And the trend appears to be increasing: the Senate hasn’t confirmed a full-time CMS administrator since 2006, when Mark McClellan resigned midway through the second Bush administration.

“Imagine if somebody went two years without a Secretary of Defense,” Thomas A. Scully, who was CMS administrator under President George W. Bush, told the journal Health Affairs in April 2010.

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