WASHINGTON — When Andrea Palm worked at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration, she says there was a theme to the policy issues that ended up on her plate: ones that required bipartisan cooperation.
The agency’s secretary at the time, Sylvia Burwell, had a nickname for Palm’s portfolio: the “common-ground agenda.”
Palm, who most recently served as Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services secretary-designee, recounted that description of her federal experience on Thursday as she faced questions from the Senate Finance Committee about her nomination to become deputy secretary at HHS.
“If I have the honor of being confirmed and returning to HHS, that’s what I’m bringing with me, a common-ground agenda,” Palm told the panel.
If confirmed, Palm will hold the number two spot at a highly visible agency at a time of intense polarization in the nation’s capital.
She faced only a few sharp questions from Senate Republicans during Thursday’s hearing, a stark contrast to the hostility she encountered in Wisconsin, where GOP lawmakers did not seek common ground with the health secretary-designee.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Republicans in the Wisconsin state Senate refused to confirm Palm to helm the Department of Health Services, the Wisconsin Examiner has reported. They often criticized her and accused the administration of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers of overreaching through public health declarations and mask mandates.
Republican leaders also took Palm to court to overturn her public health orders.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, the Wisconsin Democrat who introduced Palm at Thursday’s hearing, referenced the politicized challenges Palm faced in her past role, and praised her ability to forge ahead on the state’s pandemic response.
“Despite these barriers, Andrea Palm led and put the people of Wisconsin ahead of state capital politics,” Baldwin said. “In the face of consistent and constant political bickering and obstruction, Andrea Palm stayed the course.”
The most pointed questions that Palm faced from senators focused on the agency’s role in caring for migrant children. Through the Office of Refugee Resettlement, HHS is charged with the care and placement of unaccompanied migrant minors, who have once again been arriving at the Southern border in rising numbers.
Sen. Steve Daines, (R-Mont.), asked Palm if she thought the situation at the border is “a crisis,” and if she has visited the facilities near the Mexican border where unaccompanied children have been housed in crowded conditions.
Palm described the care of those migrant children as “one of the most pressing issues” facing the agency.
She added that she has not yet visited the border, but emphasized her background as a social worker and said she would work to get children safely placed with sponsors as quickly as possible.
“The care and safety of those kids has to be our top priority at HHS,” Palm said.
Caring for migrant children is just one challenge facing Palm if she is confirmed.
Public health is in the spotlight as the country seeks to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, and will remain so as the Biden administration grapples with the deeper problems that existed before the pandemic with the nation’s health care system.
Palm held a number of roles at HHS during the Obama administration, including as acting assistant secretary for legislation, chief of staff and senior counselor to the secretary. She worked on the Affordable Care Act and was involved in the agency’s fight against the opioid crisis.
She spent her 20s as a caseworker, finding safe homes for children and working with people in behavioral health crises.
“It was the children and families I worked with during this time that made me want to change the system and drew me to public service,” Palm said. “The memories of these kids are what still motivate me today.”
Palm told the committee that during her tenure in Wisconsin, she worked to expand access to telehealth services, sought to reduce childhood lead poisoning, and improved delivery of services across her department.
When the pandemic hit last year, she said, “we led with facts, science, and transparency to protect our communities.”
Born and raised in rural upstate New York, Palm has a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and a master’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis.
Also appearing Thursday before the Senate panel was Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
If confirmed, Brooks-LaSure, a New Jersey native who now lives in Virginia, would be the first Black woman to lead that department.
Brooks-LaSure faced questions from several senators on her view of how CMS should handle waiver requests from states seeking to tweak how their Medicaid programs operate.
She replied that if she is confirmed, CMS will have “an open door to states to new ideas,” and will ensure state officials understand the rules and decisions made about those waivers.
No date has been set yet for Finance Committee votes on Palm or Brooks-LaSure.