Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (left) speaks at the White House after her nomination to lead the Department of Health and Human Services was announced. She was joined by Nancy-Ann DeParle, who was named to lead the White House Office for Health Reform.
Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (left) speaks at the White House after her nomination to lead the Department of Health and Human Services was announced. She was joined by Nancy-Ann DeParle, who was named to lead the White House Office for Health Reform. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama has chosen two officials experienced in health policy to lead his efforts to overhaul the nation's health care system: Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to be secretary of health and human services, and former Clinton administration health staffer Nancy-Ann DeParle to head a new White House Office for Health Reform.
Unlike the president's first choice to head up the effort — former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who dropped out in the wake of tax problems — Sebelius and DeParle aren't that well-known outside health policy circles. But within the community of those who work on health care, both are highly respected.
"They both understand the intricate issues around health care policy, they understand the issues around politics, and they understand what the people of America need in a health care plan that is American," said Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union.
That sentiment was echoed by Helen Darling, president of the National Business Group on Health: "Both appointments are people who have proven themselves; they have track records."
Sebelius, 60, is no novice when it comes to health care. Before being elected governor, she spent eight years as Kansas' insurance commissioner.
But as a Democratic governor who supports abortion rights in a mostly Republican, mostly anti-abortion state, she has earned the enmity of anti-abortion groups.
Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life, says she thinks Sebelius is out of line with "mainstream America and the way they think, and a lot of damage can be done." She says the Department of Health and Human Services "is a huge department that oversees the FDA, where we've already seen abortion groups influence them a few years ago and put (the abortion pill) RU486 on a fast track to get approved, when cancer drugs wait for 10 years."
The so-called abortion drug was approved using a fast-track process during the Clinton administration, although officials denied that it was at the urging of any outside group.
DeParle, meanwhile, brings extensive Washington experience to her new White House role, though not the close relationship with individual members of Congress that Daschle would have brought to the job.
A former Tennessee state health commissioner, DeParle, 52, worked in various health jobs for most of the Clinton administration, first in the Office of Management and Budget and for three years as head of the agency that oversees Medicare and Medicaid.
"Nancy-Ann DeParle's extensive experience with health and budget issues, her relationships on the Hill, and her relationships within the administration make her a great pick to head the new White House Office for Health Reform," said Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA), chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health.
Unlike Sebelius, DeParle will not need to win Senate confirmation. But her activities since leaving government are likely to raise some eyebrows. She's served on an array of corporate boards of for-profit health companies, at least some of whose fates she will now help decide.
Still, both appointments, at least initially, were met mostly with praise. And several observers acknowledged with some satisfaction that the health overhaul effort will be led by two women.
"As a fan of both of them, I'd say that women are good problem solvers," said Burger of the SEIU. "Women understand how to bring people together and get the job done. And I think we're going to see that these two women together are going to get this job done."