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Schwarzenegger names Susan Kennedy to top healthcare post

In one of his final acts as governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger will appoint two of his top aides to a powerful new panel that will help negotiate health insurance rates for individuals and small businesses.

Schwarzenegger's chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, and outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Kim Belshe will be named to the new Health Benefit Exchange Board Friday. Jerry Brown's Health and Human Services secretary, Diana Dooley will also be on the board. Appointees from the Assembly speaker and Senate Rules Committee will round out the new five-member panel.

“Both Kim and Susan are tremendous leaders that know how to get things done,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement announcing the appointments. “With their deep understanding of healthcare, public policy and hands-on attitude, I know they will help build an exchange that will create a competitive marketplace, improve quality of care and reduce healthcare costs for California consumers.”

Kennedy and Belshe will each serve four-year terms. Board members do not receive a salary. “I am excited to have the opportunity to work on the implementation of what really is the centerpiece of federal health reform,” Belshe said.

Although he is leaving office next week, Schwarzenegger will leave a lasting imprint on the health exchange board. Kennedy, who has served as Schwarzenegger's top aide since 2006, is widely considered the most powerful chief of staff in recent memory. Belshe has served as director of the Health and Human Services Agency throughout Schwarzenegger's seven-year governorship. Schwarzenegger is entitled to make the appointments because the law goes into effect Jan. 1 and Brown is not sworn in as governor until Jan. 3.

Schwarzenegger's appointments are not subject to Senate confirmation, but future gubernatorial appointees will have to go through the confirmation process. The law was drafted that way to ensure Schwarzenegger was able to fill two spots on the commission.

Anthony Wright, executive director of the consumer group Health Access California, said the choices reflect the importance of the new panel. "It's a sign of how important the exchange is that even though they are unpaid. There's a lot of positions that are plum jobs that have a six-figure salary attached to them and not a lot of work. This is the reverse.”

Under the new federal healthcare law signed by President Obama earlier this year, most Americans will be required to purchase health insurance. But insurers will no longer be able to refuse coverage to individuals who are deemed high-risk or have other preexisting health problems.

The health benefits exchange will help negotiate prices for health coverage for individuals and businesses with less than 100 employees. It will also help ensure eligible residents receive tax credits and subsidies to purchase healthcare coverage, as outlined in the federal law. The exchange was established through legislation signed by Schwarzenegger earlier this year. California was the first state in the nation to pass such a law.

--Anthony York in Sacramento

 
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