Kerry Weems, Secretary Mike Leavitt’s deputy chief of staff and President Bush’s nominee to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), faces tough Senate confirmation hearings in July. A savvy, career HHS insider with a wealth of experience in the fiscal and organizational mechanics of federal health programs, Mr. Weems is a good choice for an administrator to steer CMS in the last 18 months of the Bush Administration. But he nonetheless faces several serious challenges during the confirmation process. A few examples:

1. Efforts to Hold Confirmation Hostage to Policy Commitments:

Senators, trade groups, and advocates of all flavors have long policy wish lists. As FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach, M.D. can attest, the confirmation process – in committee and on the Senate floor – is a unique opportunity for Democrats and even some Republicans to hold up confirmation until the nominee or Department concedes to certain policy demands. And the wish lists for the FDA are nothing compared to what many want from CMS.

2. A Maze of Medicare and Medicaid Controversies:

For better or worse, a wide range of delicate issues at CMS were left unexamined during Republican control of Congress. The Democrats now in charge of the Hill are eager to make political hay with health issues, reshape policy, and give their core constituencies a crack, albeit by proxy, at challenging CMS actions in a public forum.

Regardless of the Administration or the party running the Executive Branch, Medicare and Medicaid are full of dirty little secrets, some real and some imagined, intertwined within a massive level of complexity prone to misconception and manipulation by political foes and those of varying motivations eager for a larger slice of an $800 billion+ pie. Many critics of CMS see the Weems nomination hearings and floor debate as a unique opportunity.

3. Nomination of a Non-Wonk:

While Kerry Weems has a lot going for him and CMS would likely benefit from leadership by a career insider, he is not a health policy wonk. That is, he is not a academic, researcher, health policy maker, or lobbyist (not that most lobbyists are mavens but they like playing them on TV). He’s a budget and finance guy and a career one at that. Not a bad thing at all, but a potential problem in a town that grossly overvalues what MD’s and PhD’s typically know about health policy or finance and sees “budget guys” in health programs as somehow being on a first name basis with the devil.

Some advocacy groups, who naturally have the ear of Dems in the Senate, are concerned that Mr. Weems lacks the requisite substantive expertise in Medicare or Medicaid policy (well, make that Medicare, since unfortunately few inside the Beltway understand or track Medicaid). When a Republican is in charge of the White House, Dems and advocates are much more comfortable with an academic running CMS. And when a Democrat is in charge, they virtually insist on it. In its 30-year history, CMS (formerly named HCFA) has had nearly as many administrators and acting administrators. Add to this extremely high turnover the fact that CMS is rather unique in having a tiny number of political appointees.

There are notable exceptions. Gail Wilensky, Ph.D., one of the nation’s most talented health policy experts, turned out to be an excellent administrator in the early 1990’s. And there have been times where the agency was led by a budget guy, most notably Leonard Schaeffer, who ran HCFA is its early days. He came to HCFA from managing health budgets for the State of Illinois and later was the founding chairman and CEO of WellPoint.

Kerry Weems will have his hands full next month. But he’s a smart fellow, with a keen sense for detail, and HHS and CMS staffs are briefing him around the clock in preparation. He’ll do well before the Senate if given a fair shake.