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Obama's former health chief nabs top job at American University

Sylvia Mathews Burwell did not take long to find another job in Washington, D.C., after ending her nearly three-year stint as former President Barack Obama's secretary of Health and Human Services on Jan. 20.

American University on Jan. 26 named Burwell its 15th president. She is the first woman to serve in the position, which she will start June 1, following the retirement of Neil Kerwin.

Burwell stepped in to take over HHS in June 2014 after the resignation of Obama's first health agency secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, who departed in April 2014 following a problematic launch six months earlier of the Affordable Care Act's online insurance marketplace, HealthCare.gov.

In announcing the change April 11, 2014, Obama called Burwell, who previously had served as the president's director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, a "rock" and a "steady hand on the wheel."

Before joining the Obama administration, Burwell, a West Virginia native, served as president of the Walmart Foundation. She also is a former COO for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the founding president of the organization's global development program.

Burwell also worked in the Clinton administration in the 1990s as deputy chief of staff to the president at the White House and chief of staff to the U.S. Treasury secretary. She holds degrees in government and economics from Harvard University and Oxford University, respectively.

At HHS, which employs 80,000 people and has the largest budget of any U.S. cabinet-level department, Burwell led the U.S. efforts to respond to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 to 2015 and the ongoing spread of the Zika virus, overseeing the agencies involved in addressing those concerns, namely the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA.

"Knowing that Secretary Burwell could move Congress to action, I'm sure she could do wonders with a room full of students in a science or general education class," Kiho Kim, a professor of environmental science at AU and a member of the university's presidential search committee, said during a Jan. 26 ceremony revealing the school's new president.

Jeffrey Sine, a partner at The Raine Group LLC and chair of AU's presidential search committee, joked that Burwell could look forward to "excellent" healthcare coverage at the university.

"But you only have a 30-day window to sign up," he said, poking fun at the former HHS secretary's role in reminding Americans to enroll in ACA health plans before it was too late.