(Bloomberg) -- Former Microsoft Corp. executive Kurt DelBene was named to replace Jeffrey Zients as the manager of the U.S. health-insurance enrollment system, as Zients prepares to take over as White House chief economic adviser.
Today, DelBene, 53, most recently the president of the Microsoft division responsible for its Office software, takes over as head of the effort to improve the federal health exchange, the Department of Health and Human Services announced.
Zients has been credited for leading a six-week repair that salvaged the bug-ridden, error-prone system, including the healthcare.gov website. The online insurance marketplace is a critical component of President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul as the administration seeks to provide medical coverage for an estimated 48 million uninsured Americans.
DelBene “has proven expertise in heading large, complex technology teams and in product development,” U.S. Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a blog post. “He will be a tremendous asset in our work.”
DelBene spent 21 years at Microsoft. He is married to U.S. Representative Suzan DelBene, a Democrat from Washington state, who also is a former Microsoft executive. He announced his retirement from Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft in July after a companywide reorganization that merged the Office business with the search engine and gave oversight of that unit to a different executive.
About 137,000 people have used the federal system to select health plans in 36 states under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Almost four times as many people signed up in November, when the website was under repair, as in October, when most users were stymied by technical errors that prevented enrollment.
About 365,000 people have signed up for private health plans under the law so far, including 227,000 in 14 states that are running their own enrollment systems led by California.
Seven Democratic U.S. senators led by Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire wrote Obama on Nov. 26 and urged him to appoint a permanent chief executive for the federal system after Zients moves to the White House. Sebelius said DelBene’s appointment “reflects ideas from key stakeholders” including the senators. Zients is scheduled to take over in February as Obama’s director of the National Economic Council, White House press secretary Jay Carney said today.
U.S. Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat who signed Shaheen’s letter, said that DelBene’s appointment is “welcome news” for consumers. Colorado built an enrollment system and website for its residents, and had signed up about 10,000 people in private plans by the end of November.
“Although Colorado’s health exchange has not experienced the difficulties of healthcare.gov, Mr. DelBene’s appointment is a good step toward achieving the goal of giving all consumers -- regardless of where they live -- a functioning marketplace to find and compare health plans,” Udall said in a statement.
DelBene will be a senior adviser to Sebelius and he has agreed to serve in the role at least through the first half of 2014, she said. He is “essentially serving as an unpaid adviser” and will donate his $119,554 salary back to the U.S. Treasury, Viet Shelton, a spokesman for Suzan DelBene’s office, said in an e-mail.
Suzan DelBene reported in a financial disclosure required of members of Congress that her family had assets of $24 million to $70 million in 2012, and investment income from $612,000 to $4 million. The government’s disclosure rules require officials to only report their assets and income in broad ranges. The DelBenes’ largest investments are in mutual funds and Microsoft stock, the forms show.
DelBene has “a track record of successfully managing complex large-scale technology projects,” Microsoft founder Bill Gates said in a statement. “I know him to be a passionate advocate for using technology to solve difficult problems at scale.”
Obama announced DelBene’s appointment privately during a meeting this morning with chief executive officers from technology companies including Apple Inc., Yahoo! Inc. and Netflix Inc., Carney said. Sebelius chose DelBene for the position in consultation with Zients and Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, he said.
“He is uniquely suited to this task; has vast experience with running a complex piece of technology; and the president and the secretary are very grateful that he’s agreed to take on this position,” Carney said.
Consumers must purchase insurance by Dec. 23 to quality for coverage beginning Jan. 1. The enrollment period continues until March 31. The administration had estimated that 7 million people would gain health coverage for 2014 through the new state and federal enrollment systems.
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