Tufts Health Plan chief executive James Roosevelt Jr. is a candidate to run the Social Security Administration, the program his grandfather signed into law in 1935, according to people briefed on the matter.
Roosevelt, 67, is the grandson of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and would come to the commissioner’s post at time when the agency is facing intense financial and political pressures. He helped lead a review of the Social Security Administration as part of President Obama’s transition team, and previously served as associate commissioner for retirement policy for the agency under President Clinton.
To many, it seems that the Harvard-educated lawyer and health care specialist has been in training for this job for much of his career. But the decision may turn on whether Obama is looking for a policy maker with strong views on saving Social Security, which Roosevelt has, or principally an administrator to manage the sprawling operation.
A number of lawmakers are backing Roosevelt. US Representative Michael Capuano, Democrat of Somerville, said in a statement, “Jim’s health care expertise as well as his Massachusetts roots and previous work with Social Security make him an excellent choice to oversee this vital program.”
The position requires a nomination by Obama and confirmation by the Senate. The next head of the agency would succeed Michael Astrue, a George W. Bush appointee whose six-year term expires Jan. 19. Astrue, who hails from Belmont, was a biotech industry executive before taking the top job at Social Security.
Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian research group in Washington, said the next person to run Social Security must contend with budget challenges, as Congress takes up spending issues and the $2.7 trillion retirement safety net faces a shortfall starting in 2033 that will lead to a 25 percent cut in benefits if no action is taken.
Roosevelt would bring experience testifying before Congress and managing a relatively large organization. Said Tanner, “He’s been campaigning for the job forever.”
Last May, Roosevelt, a Democrat, co-wrote an opinion piece on how to fix Social Security with Robert Reynolds, a Republican and the chief executive of mutual fund firm Putnam Investments in Boston. In that piece, Roosevelt and Reynolds pressed for a number of measures to protect the solvency of the system, including raising the age for full benefits to 68 and changing the way cost-of-living adjustments are made.
They also proposed raising the $110,100 ceiling on wages that are subject to Social Security contributions — a measure addressed in the recent fiscal cliff tax bill. The new ceiling for 2013 is $113,700.
Roosevelt is on the short list of candidates for the Social Security job, according to several people who were briefed on the matter but not authorized to discuss the process publicly.
The Social Security Administration and the White House declined to comment on Roosevelt or the timing for naming a new director. A spokeswoman for Tufts Health Plan also declined to comment.
Other contenders for the post include Nancy Altman, chairman of the Pension Rights Center, a nonprofit that advocates for workers’ retirement security, and former North Dakota representative Earl Pomeroy, as reported Tuesday by the website Government Executive. The current deputy commissioner, Carolyn Colvin, could serve as acting commissioner.
Roosevelt joined Tufts Health Plan in 1999 as senior vice president and general counsel, becoming president and chief executive in 2005. He has pressed an aggressive expansion plan in that time and nearly merged Tufts with the larger Harvard Pilgrim Health Care a year ago. Both insurers ultimately scrapped the merger talks after determining they were better off staying independent.
For the first nine months of 2012, Tufts reported net income of $56.5 million on revenues of $2.9 billion. Nearly half the net income came from investments, while the rest came from health care operations.
The Social Security Administration is an independent federal agency headquartered in suburban Baltimore with over 62,000 employees nationwide. The commissioner reports to the president. In 2011, nearly 55 million Americans received $727 billion in Social Security benefits.
Tanner said the president will likely be seeking a strong manager to run Social Security.
The recent tax bill restored about $100 billion in revenue to Social Security, by eliminating a tax break for workers. Still, the retirement system will run a deficit, Tanner said. Almost immediately, he said, “They’re going to have to deal with the budget issues.”
Beth Healy can be reached at email@example.com.