By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's nominee to oversee Medicare and Medicaid won the backing of a Senate panel on Tuesday, clearing the way for a vote by the full Senate that could make Marilyn Tavenner the programs' first official administrator since 2006.
The Senate Finance Committee voted unanimously to endorse Tavenner as head of the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
The agency provides health coverage to some 100 million elderly, disabled and poor Americans and also oversees implementation of Obama's signature healthcare reform law, the Affordable Care Act.
There was no immediate word on when the Senate would vote on Tavenner's confirmation. The former nurse and hospital company executive has been running CMS as acting administrator since late 2011.
"I think she'll make a terrific administrator. One of the best," said Senator Max Baucus of Montana, the committee's Democratic chairman.
If confirmed, Tavenner would officially take the helm at a time of daunting challenges for U.S. healthcare policy. Obama's reform law is heading for full implementation on January 1 and both Medicare and Medicaid are in the political firing line for possible deficit reductions.
Tavenner, who also oversaw health policy in her home state of Virginia, drew vital support from top Republicans for her practicality and private sector experience.
Among her backers is House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a leading conservative who introduced her at an April 9 confirmation hearing.
Tavenner vowed at the hearing to run the $820 billion CMS "as a business."
"This is an excellent choice," said Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the committee's top Republican.
"CMS has a budget larger than the Department of Defense. It's the nation's single largest insurer," he added. "We need a permanent person there."
The agency's last official administrator was Dr. Mark McClellan, who assumed the job under former President George W. Bush and oversaw the implementation of the Medicare prescription drug benefit before leaving in 2006.
Since then, CMS nominees have been stymied by partisan politics. Tavenner became acting administrator after her predecessor, Obama nominee Donald Berwick, assumed the post in a 2010 recess appointment but left when Republicans made it clear that they would oppose his confirmation.
Before joining CMS, Tavenner worked for four years as the secretary of health and human resources for Virginia. She spent 25 years working for the Hospital Corporation of America, beginning as a nurse, eventually becoming an executive and ending in 2005 as head of its outpatient services unit.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Ros Krasny, Gerald E. McCormick, Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman)