Obama calls trusted fixer to help health site
By DARLENE SUPERVILLE
WASHINGTON -- When a federal program that promised cash rebates to people who traded in their clunkers for more fuel-efficient vehicles was overrun by demand, President Barack Obama assigned Jeffrey Zients, his deputy budget director, to help eliminate the backlog.
When the same thing happened with sign-ups for an updated version of the GI Bill, one designed to help the 9/11 generation of veterans get a college education, Obama again turned to Zients for help.
Now, as Obama's health care website continues to be plagued by a rash of technical problems that have turned it into an administration embarrassment and a source of frustration for uninsured people trying to sign up for coverage that the law now requires many of them to have, who has Obama called for help? Zients, his Mr. Fix-it.
Faced with mounting questions about the website, the Obama administration announced Tuesday the longtime management consultant will help fix the problems and turn the site into the breezy, one-stop shopping portal Obama promised it would be.
Zients came out of a temporary retirement from the federal government and quietly dived into his new assignment Monday. He left the administration earlier this year after the budget director's job went to someone else. Last month, Obama announced Zients would take over next year as director of the National Economic Council, becoming the president's chief economic adviser.
Zients will provide short-term advice, assessments and recommendations to a Department of Health and Human Services team officials said has been working around the clock to fix www.healthcare.gov since it went live Oct. 1.
Administration officials, from Obama down, had promoted the federal website as the first stop for uninsured people in 36 states who want to figure out what coverage they can afford. They now are urging people to also try signing up by telephone, mail or in person.
Zients has led some of the country's top management firms, advising companies worldwide.
He joined the administration in 2009 as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and the nation's first chief performance officer. He also served two stints as OMB's acting director, and led an effort to streamline government and save money by selling off unused or underused real estate. The effort stalled in Congress.
Zients was acting OMB director from January 2012 through April 2013, when the Senate confirmed Sylvia Mathews Burwell for the director's post.
By many accounts, the 46-year-old Zients, who lives in Washington with his wife and four children, is well-respected and liked inside the White House.
"I think that's why he's continually being handed tough jobs," said Kenneth Baer, who was a senior adviser to Zients at the budget office.
Zients grew up in the Washington area and spent his career in business before agreeing to work for Obama. That two decades of experience allowed him to bring a different perspective to government and how it should be run, Baer said.
"He's not going to be looking under the hood and tell you, 'I can fix the coding, I can fix it,'" Baer said.