Hidden Hand: Gary Cohen, the Insurance Expert Behind Obamacare

The insurance expert behind Obamacare
Cohen (left) is Obamacare’s gatekeeper Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Director, Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services

Gary Cohen seems awfully calm for a man whose job is to make sure Obamacare doesn’t flop. As head of CCIIO (awkward pronunciation: Suh-SIE-O), he oversees the complex, politically fraught system of state health insurance exchanges that will begin signing up uninsured Americans starting on Oct. 1. It hasn’t exactly been a smooth rollout. Many Americans still have no idea the exchanges exist, and the administration has struggled to explain who’s eligible for coverage under the Affordable Care Act and how they enroll. Cohen is convinced the confusion will clear up once things are up and running. “We’re going to get to the point where the discussions we’re having today will fade into the background,” he says. “What will matter is, will the program be successful?”

An attorney who practiced for 16 years, Cohen took over the agency in 2012 after working as a California insurance regulator and insurance company executive. “Gary’s not a showman,” says Joel Ario, a former CCIIO official who praises him as “a very quietly competent guy.” Cohen says one challenge is countering the notion, fueled by Republicans, that Obamacare will dictate everyone’s coverage. For the 85 percent of Americans insured through work, “you’re getting some additional consumer protections,” he says. “Beyond that it doesn’t really affect you.”

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