Obama calls trusted fixer to help health care site

WASHINGTON (AP) - When a federal program that promised cash rebatesto people who traded in their clunkers for more fuel-efficient vehicleswas 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 ofthe GI Bill, one designed to help the 9/11 generation of veterans get acollege education, Obama again turned to Zients for help.

Now, as Obama's health care website continues to be plagued by a rashof technical problems that have turned it into an administrationembarrassment and a source of frustration for uninsured people trying tosign 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 Obamaadministration announced Tuesday that the longtime management consultantwill help fix the problems and turn the site into the breezy, one-stopshopping portal Obama promised it would be.

Zients came out of a temporary retirement from the federal governmentand quietly dived into his new assignment on Monday. He left theadministration earlier this year after the budget director's job went tosomeone else. Last month, Obama announced that Zients would take overnext year as director of the National Economic Council, becoming thepresident's chief economic adviser.

Zients will provide short-term advice, assessments andrecommendations to a Department of Health and Human Services team thatofficials say has been working around the clock to fix www.healthcare.govsince it went live Oct. 1. Administration officials, from Obama ondown, had promoted the federal website as the first stop for uninsuredpeople in 36 states who want to figure out what coverage they canafford. They are now 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 Officeof Management and Budget and the nation's first chief performanceofficer. He also served two stints as OMB's acting director, and led aneffort to streamline government and save money by selling off unused orunderused 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'spost.

By many accounts, the 46-year-old Zients, who lives in Washingtonwith his wife and four children, is well-respected and liked inside theWhite House.

"I think that's why he's continually being handed tough jobs," saidKenneth Baer, who was a senior adviser to Zients at the budget office.

Zients grew up in the Washington area and spent his career inbusiness before agreeing to work for Obama. That two decades ofexperience allowed him to bring a different perspective to governmentand how it should be run, Baer says.

"He's not going to be looking under the hood and tell you, 'I can fixthe coding, I can fix it,'" Baer said of Zients' newest assignment."His skill is going to be how to identify challenges, prioritize whatsolutions need to be done next, assessing what talent is alreadyavailable and then how to motivate them to do that job as quickly and asably as possible."

Aneesh Chopra, who was Obama's chief technology officer, said Zientsis extremely skilled in figuring things out from a managementperspective.

"If I was confident this issue would be resolved before hisparticipation, I am doubly so now," said Chopra, who also worked withZients at the Advisory Board Co., one of two business advisory firmswhere Zients has held top posts. "Jeff's track record is really arelentless focus on execution."

In 2009, after far more drivers than anticipated signed up for theCash for Clunkers program and the federal website set up to processrebates of up to $4,500 per new car kept crashing under the weight ofthe demand, Zients helped smooth things out.

He played a similar role following the rocky rollout of a new GI Billfor veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The program hadbecome so bogged down that the Veterans Affairs Department began toissue $3,000 advance checks to thousands of veterans who needed helppaying expenses until their claims could be processed. At one point,Zients, Chopra and Vivek Kundra, then the chief technology officer, flewto a VA processing center in St. Louis to size up the problems.

Before Zients joined the administration, he was chief executiveofficer and chairman of the Advisory Board Co., and chairman of theCorporate Executive Board. Zients also founded Portfolio Logic, aninvestment firm that focused on business and health care servicecompanies.

Zients has a political science degree from Duke University.


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