Top UnitedHealth Group Inc. executive Simon Stevens is returning to England to run his native country's health care system.

The 47-year-old Stevens has been a charismatic and intellectual force at Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth, the nation's largest insurer, where he has worked since 2004. He currently leads the global health division as well as the company's Washington-based think tank that focuses on research and innovation to modernize the U.S. health care system.

Born in Birmingham and educated at Oxford, Stevens had been a member of former Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet for four years before coming to UnitedHealth. In all, he spent about a decade in various positions with the National Health Service.

"Simon has made substantial contributions to our company and the cause of high-quality health care in the U.S. and internationally," said Don Nathan, a spokesman for UnitedHealth Group. "And, given his well-known passion for the NHS, we congratulate him on this singular honor."

Stevens will take over as the chief executive of NHS England on April 1, according to a government statement announcing his selection.

The government-run health care program is funded by taxpayers, and most care is free to residents of the United Kingdom. It is made up of four independent systems in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which operate independently and under different rules and political authority.

As leader of NHS England, Stevens will have control of the daily operations of the health service in England, the largest body in the UK's health system.

Stevens' appointment comes after a worldwide search, according to the government statement. He takes the position at a time when the NHS faces challenges not unlike those in the United States — trying to keep medical costs down while improving the quality of care for patients.

"The next five years are going to be extremely challenging for the NHS, but compassionate high-quality care for all is as vital as ever," Stevens said in a statement.

He said the "stakes have never been higher," and that he believes "a broad new partnership of patients, carers, staff and the public can together chart a successful future for our health service."