Last-Minute Rule Seeks to Impose Term Limits on Top Career Health Officials

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“It’s fundamentally different than academia because of the political overtones,” he said.

Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said her agency had been unaware of the new policy.

“We were completely blindsided by this when agencies were focused on the pandemic response, and the staff has worked tirelessly,” she said. “I think our career staff deserve better than an unvetted policy.”

Brian Harrison, the H.H.S. chief of staff, oversaw the rule himself, in place of the department’s secretary, Alex M. Azar II. The move was the product of a small “deregulatory group” at H.H.S. that Mr. Harrison led this year, he said in an interview. Top health officials have grumbled about what they view as Mr. Harrison’s efforts to draw attention to his role in pursuing new rules, including using the department’s public affairs Twitter account to regularly feature graphics with his name on them commenting on new policies.

No one will lose employment as a result of the rule, he said in a conference call with reporters on Friday. Employees who might lose their roles at the top of centers, bureaus and divisions would be appointed somewhere else within their agency. Others could be renewed for additional five-year terms.

“All Americans are very familiar with having to check in with their boss,” Mr. Harrison said. “This simply institutionalizes leaders within H.H.S., whose boss is the secretary right now, to check in with their boss two times a decade.”

Many top health officials are hired as political appointees, meaning they frequently exit the agencies when there is a change in presidential leadership. But the new rule would affect the professional career staff, who often work in the government for decades.

Mr. Harrison said the change would help diversify the leadership ranks by making way for new employees to ascend to leadership roles. But critics of the policy say it could instead be a convenient way for political leaders to sideline senior career staff members with opposing views and could repel talented scientists considering entering government service.

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