There’s the White House auto czar, the health care czar and the yet-to-be-named cyber czar. There are czars overseeing drugs, climate and regulatory action. There’s a pay czar overlooking executive compensation and talk of another for sports and culture.
And then, there’s the aging czar.
Kathy Greenlee, assistant secretary for aging in the Department of Health and Human Services, is the country’s top authority on issues facing the massively expanding population of older Americans.
Her budget and profile are relatively modest, but Greenlee is tasked with oversight of a sprawling network of services and occupies a post with the potential to influence many aspects of government.
She also happens to be charged with an issue nearly everyone must deal with at some point.
“Aging is such a unifying topic,” Greenlee, 49, said in an interview from her Washington office. “Any issues that we work on with the administration will hopefully help everyone.”
Confirmed by the Senate in June, Greenlee now oversees a $1.5 billion annual budget and tens of thousands of organizations receiving federal funding for all types of senior services, including rides to doctor appointments, adult day care, home-delivered meals and legal assistance for elders in every part of the U.S.
It gives her a voice on the health overhaul legislation, at least as related to seniors, and on issues involving Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, though those entitlement programs are not directly under her supervision.
Greenlee’s appointment has been cheered by many who work in the aging community because she is seen as someone with ground-level experience working with the elderly.
Her prior jobs include specializing in elder law at the Legal Aid Society of Topeka, serving as ombudsman for long-term care in Kansas and, eventually, heading the Kansas Department on Aging.
Formerly of Lawrence
She grew up in the small town of Clearwater, Kan., and never strayed too far, attending Kansas University, then settling in a home in that college town of Lawrence, and never living outside of the state.
She gained the respect of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in her numerous state posts and in stints as chief of staff and chief of operations for the governor. Sebelius brought Greenlee to Washington after becoming head of HHS.
Shannon Jones, executive director of the nonprofit Statewide Independent Living Council of Kansas, has collaborated with Greenlee, whom she calls “high-energy” and says is clued into the issues facing seniors.
“She’s a gal that is just straightforward and knows when things make sense,” Jones said. “She gets it.”
Among the issues Greenlee is most passionate about is keeping seniors in their homes and communities, if they choose, and out of nursing homes, which most want to avoid.
Advocates have been working on this for decades, and while Greenlee pledges her attention, there is no quick fix in a system generally ruled by Medicaid, which operates differently in each state.
“To move forward and expand community services, we have to have a whole lot of things happen in each individual state,” she said.
As for the health overhaul bill, Greenlee has been active trying to pass along facts on the proposals to providers of aging services, in hopes of getting seniors informed.
She concedes there has been confusion.
“Seniors aren’t quite sure what to believe,” she said.
‘Power of persuasion’
Whether Greenlee, a lifelong Democrat, might play a larger role in shaping the health bill remains to be seen.
Greenlee hasn’t been a caregiver herself. Her parents are relatively healthy 71-year-olds. Her father retired from a glass business and her mother is a retired microbiologist. Her grandparents were wheat farmers.
Greenlee is the fourth occupant of the assistant secretary for aging job, which was elevated to its current stature in 1993.
The first person to hold the job, Fernando Torres-Gil, said he sees the position as an opportunity to advocate on behalf of the elderly, but one that required skillful networking with power brokers.
“Ultimately, it’s about the power of persuasion, negotiation and knowing how to work the bureaucracy,” said Torres-Gil, an associate dean at UCLA and director of its Center for Policy Research on Aging. “The position has tremendous potential to influence the president’s agenda on aging.
“It’s not just health reform, it’s not just Social Security and entitlement programs, ultimately it’s about how the administration can position itself to take care of the next generation of elders.”