Health Chief Seeks to Focus on Insurance Site

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the secretary of Health and Human Services, said Monday in her first major speech that she wanted to move beyond the politics of health care and work with members of both parties to improve the management and operation of, the website used by millions of people to sign up for insurance coverage.

“What I’ve told my team is that we’re not here to fight last year’s battles,” she said. “We’re here to fight for affordability, access and quality.”

With midterm elections two months away, Ms. Burwell said she wanted to shift the conversation to areas of potential agreement. Polls consistently show that the public remains more negative than positive on the Affordable Care Act, but that Americans want Congress to improve the law rather than to repeal it.

“The American people are sending a very clear message that they want us to work together on health care,” Ms. Burwell said, in remarks at George Washington University.

Ms. Burwell said that since she took office in June, she has heard the same message from many people: “Enough already with the back and forth on the Affordable Care Act. We just want to move forward.”

The next open enrollment period begins Nov. 15 and runs through Feb. 15, half as long as the first sign-up period.

Shortly after Ms. Burwell finished her speech, she announced that the Obama administration was awarding $60 million in grants to 90 organizations that would counsel consumers on health insurance. Such counselors, also known as navigators, were indispensable in helping consumers use balky federal and state websites in the first enrollment period, which ran from October of last year through March of this year.

Last year the government awarded $67 million in navigator grants to 105 organizations, many of which had subcontractors.

The Obama administration said it would require all navigators to take additional training courses and be recertified if they wanted to advise consumers in the coming open enrollment period. The new curriculum includes courses on how to verify a person’s immigration status, how to count household income and how to help college-age students enroll in coverage.

Among the larger new recipients of grants are the University of South Florida, which is receiving $5.4 million for a statewide consortium of 12 organizations; United Way of Tarrant County, serving the Fort Worth area ($4.6 million); Legal Aid of North Carolina ($2.3 million); and the Ohio Association of Foodbanks ($2.2 million).

Smaller grant recipients include the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, in Dearborn, Mich.; Planned Parenthood organizations in Iowa and Montana; the Beaufort County Black Chamber of Commerce in South Carolina; and Primero Health, a Latino community organization in Texas.

In her remarks, Ms. Burwell drew implicit contrasts with her predecessor, Kathleen Sebelius, who supervised the disastrous debut of the health care website last fall. Ms. Burwell repeatedly emphasized her management skills, honed as president of the Walmart Foundation and as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget under President Obama.

Ms. Burwell promised a new era of transparency and candor, and said her goal was to answer letters from Congress within 30 days. But in response to questions, health officials said they were unable to update the enrollment figures issued on May 1, when they reported that eight million people had signed up for private insurance through the federal and state marketplaces.

Within hours of Ms. Burwell’s speech, Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent her a letter demanding detailed information on state-run exchanges that experienced severe problems. The lawmakers first requested the information in early June.

Five of those states — Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Oregon — received a total of more than $1 billion in federal grants.

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