Tavenner, the Anti-Berwick?

John Commins, November 30, 2011

Phrases such as "practical-minded" and "consensus-builder" are used a lot when friends and colleagues of Marilyn Tavenner talk about the No. 2 administrator at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Tavenner, who has served as a nurse, HCA executive, and Virginia health secretary, was nominated by the Obama administration last week to replace Donald Berwick, MD, as administrator at CMS.

By most accounts, the low-key and soft-spoken Tavenner will not bring to the top job at CMS the "visionary" status that Berwick enjoyed among the healthcare intelligentsia. The comments of Tavenner's friends and colleagues, however, suggest that she is a highly competent expert in healthcare administration who is also not laden with the issues that made Berwick's tenure contentious. Berwick assumed office as a recess appointment by the Obama administration nearly 18 months ago. He leaves CMS on Dec. 2, weeks before his term was to expire. Republicans vowed to block his confirmation.

"She is not going to be a bomb thrower. She is not going to be tossing political hand grenades," says Virginia State Sen. Edd  Houck, D-Fredericksburg. Houck worked with Tavenner when she was secretary of Virginia Health and Human Resources from 2006 to 2010 under Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine.

"I keep coming back to the same word, she is so pragmatic in working toward a mutual result that if folks would let that attribute come through they would find that she is a true professional," Houck says. "She has been in healthcare her whole life. She is not a politician. She is a healthcare practitioner."

Although she served under a Democratic governor, Houck says Tavenner worked well with Republicans in the Virginia Senate. "Marilyn was agile and sensitive to the partisan differences. She was politically astute," he says.

Erik Swensson, MD, the CMO at Capella Healthcare, has known Tavenner for 26 years and saw her rise in the ranks from nurse to CEO at what is now HCA's CJW Medical Center in Richmond, VA. Since then, Tavenner has served as a regional executive for HCA.

John Commins

John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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