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Schwarzenegger appoints 2 top aides to health panel

In his last days in office, governor names chief of staff Susan Kennedy and health secretary Kim Belshe to Health Benefit Exchange Board, which will negotiate insurance rates and ensure tax credits and subsidies are disbursed.

January 01, 2011|By Anthony York, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — In one of his final acts as governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed 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 were named Friday to the new Health Benefit Exchange Board.

Diana Dooley, Gov.-elect Jerry Brown's Health and Human Services secretary, will also be on the board. Appointees of 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 his term ends next week, Schwarzenegger will leave a lasting imprint on the health exchange board. Kennedy, who has served as his 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 will not be sworn in as governor until Jan. 3.

Schwarzenegger's appointments are not subject to Senate confirmation, but future gubernatorial appointees will be. The law was drafted that way to ensure Schwarzenegger would be 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" even though the posts are unpaid, he said. "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 federal healthcare law signed by President Obama last year, most Americans will be required to purchase health insurance, and insurers will no longer be able to deny coverage to individuals deemed high-risk or who have preexisting health problems.

The Health Benefits Exchange will help negotiate prices for health coverage for individuals and businesses with fewer than 100 employees. It will also help ensure that 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 last year. California was the first state in the nation to pass such a law.

anthony.york@latimes.com

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