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Return of Obama Staffers to HHS Brings ‘Wealth of Knowledge’ (1)

Jan. 21, 2021, 10:25 PMUpdated: Jan. 21, 2021, 11:03 PM

Senior staffers from the Obama administration are returning to the Department of Health and Human Services as the Biden administration takes the reins of an agency battling Covid-19 without any confirmed officials.

The department’s senior staff will be responsible for doing much of the work to implement Biden’s policy goals. Most of the top officials running the department are doing so in an acting capacity because the Senate has yet to confirm any of President Joe Biden’s health nominees.

The returning HHS senior staff are veterans of the department and bring a “wealth of knowledge,” said Al Fitzpayne, former HHS chief of staff.

Those appointees, according to an internal email obtained by Bloomberg Law, include:

  • Anne Reid as deputy chief of staff, who served as a counselor to former HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell.
  • AJ Pearlman, former HHS Office for Civil Rights chief of staff, as chief of staff for the Covid-19 response.
  • Kathryn Alvarez, former senior adviser to the HHS chief of staff, as deputy chief of staff for the Covid-19 response.
  • Dawn O’Connell, former senior counselor to Burwell, as senior counselor for the Covid-19 response.

The HHS is an “aircraft carrier,” and understanding the various agencies and offices within it—and the broader role each plays—gives the Obama veterans an advantage when it comes to coordination, Fitzpayne said.

That knowledge also helps them make sure the department is well-aligned so that disagreements are resolved and don’t “erupt in public, the way they did in the Trump administration,” said Fitzpayne.

HHS Secretary-designee Xavier Becerra and Chief of Staff Sean McCluskie, both of whom will be new to the department, will “get the great benefit of having people who have worked there for years and understand the culture of the place, the value of the career staff” to help them navigate a large, diffuse agency, Fitzpayne said.

A Leader on Medicaid Economics

Ben Sommers, an economist and practicing doctor who worked at the HHS during the Obama administration, will serve as deputy assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the office of health policy, according to the same internal email.

Sommers is creative and thoughtful about the problems in the U.S. health-care system, said David Grabowski, a colleague of Sommers at Harvard University. He’s seen as one of the national leaders on Medicaid economics, Grabowski said.

Sommers has a “keen awareness” of the Medicaid program’s goals—to get more people enrolled, make sure the coverage is quality, and address existing disparities, said Heidi Allen, a professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work and collaborator of Sommers.

She expects that Sommers will go in, try to determine what questions will need to be answered, what data is best to use to answer those, and how quickly those answers can be determined so that the president can make “good, evidence-based decisions,” Allen said.

Grabowski added that Sommers is the right person to ensure Medicaid expansions “have the intended impacts.”

The Biden administration intends to “get some stuff done,” based on the staff they’ve brought in and their credentials, Allen said.


Alison Barkoff, an attorney and disability policy advocate, is joining the HHS Administration for Community Living as principal deputy administrator, and will serve as its acting secretary. She will also be a senior adviser to the HHS secretary for disability policy.

Barkoff is “absolutely committed to policy that advances the rights of disabled people” and “understands that the details of that policy matters. It is literally life and death for the disability community,” said Matthew Cortland, an attorney and disability policy consultant.

People living in congregate settings like group and nursing homes have disproportionately died from the Covid-19 pandemic. Cortland expects Barkoff to immediately work to put policies in place that will keep people in their homes and not in those institutions.

Lisa Barclay, an Obama administration alum, and Paul Rodriguez, head of the New Jersey consumer protection agency, will also join the HHS as deputy general counsels, according to the internal email.

Barclay was chief of staff for former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Peggy Hamburg from 2011 to 2014, and a partner at Boies Schiller & Flexner LLP from 2014 until rejoining the department.

Rodriguez joins the HHS from the New Jersey consumer protection agency, where he pursued price gouging, false Covid-19 treatments, and unauthorized tests during the pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement Wednesday. Rodriguez also was involved in the operation of a prescription drug monitoring program, the state’s lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, and other efforts to protect vulnerable consumers.

(Adds comment from Grabowski in the 12th paragraph. An earlier version corrected Al Fitzpayne's name.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Shira Stein in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at; Brent Bierman at