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White House Spotlights Health Care

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White House Spotlights Health Care

Health Care

White House Spotlights Health Care

White House Spotlights Health Care

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The White House this week turns its attention to a sweeping policy review on health care. President Obama will host a White House summit later this week on the health care system. On Monday, he nominated Kathleen Sebelius, the Democratic governor of Kansas, as his new secretary of health and human services.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INKSEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. This week, the White House turns to a sweeping policy review on health care, after weeks of focusing on the financial sector, the federal budget and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama will host a White House summit later this week on the health care system. Yesterday he named Kathleen Sebelius, the governor of Kansas, as his new secretary of Health and Human Services. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: President Obama nominated Sebelius just as he is ramping up the debate over health care reforms. He's already asked Congress to pass a health care bill this year and his budget calls for a $634 billion down-payment on a 10-year plan he says would control costs, improve quality, and provide near-universal insurance coverage. Yesterday he said Governor Sebelius knows health care inside and out and that she's right person for a battle the White House calls a fiscal imperative, not just a moral imperative.

President BARACK OBAMA: The crushing costs of health care causes a bankruptcy in America every 30 seconds. And by the end of this year, it could cause 1.5 million Americans to lose their homes. It's a crisis punishing families, battering businesses, squeezing our states, and increasingly imperiling our own budget. Health care is one of the fastest growing expenses in the federal budget and it's one we simply cannot sustain.

LIASSON: The president said Sebelius's experience in Kansas includes a stint as state insurance commissioner and six years of working across the isle with the Republican legislature.

President OBAMA: As a governor she's been on the front lines of our health care crisis. She has a deep knowledge of what the burden of crushing costs does to our families and businesses. That's why she fought to guarantee Kansans access to quality affordable health care and sought to secure it for every Kansas child from birth to age five.

LIASSON: What Mr. Obama didn't mention was that Sebelius tried twice to get Republicans to agree to expand medical coverage by raising the cigarette tax. She failed both times. But yesterday she said she was ready to try again at health care reform on a national scale.

Governor KATHLEEN SEBELIUS (Democrat, Kansas): Business and labor leaders, teachers and health care providers, policy makers at the state, local and national level, parents and children, are ready to join this effort. This isn't a partisan challenge. It's an American challenge, and one that we can't afford to ignore.

LIASSON: The president had originally chosen former Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle to the lead the health reform effort, but he withdrew because of tax problems. Daschle would have worn two hats, as both HHS secretary and White House health care czar. Sebelius will not have those dual roles. The president announced yesterday that the White House Office of Health Reform will be led by Nancy-Ann Min DeParle, a veteran of the Clinton administration's budget office and a former health care official in Tennessee. DeParle also headed the health care finance administration in the 1990s, the agency responsible for Medicare and Medicaid.

Now that he has his team in place, the president will turn his attention to health care reform in earnest. On Thursday he's inviting members of the Congress from both parties and representatives from all the interest groups in the health care debate to the White House. Insurance companies, big business, drug makers, doctors, hospitals and consumers will be there, says White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): This is the beginning of a long process to bring all of those involved together to begin to discuss these problems. Part of the solution is getting everybody in a room to discuss it, as the president talked about getting people around a big table and doing that in a public way. I think this is the beginning of that in order to seek some of that consensus.

LIASSON: During the campaign, the president purposed a plan that would require children to be covered and would create a government run health plan to compete with private insurers. Now White House aides say he's not wedded to any specific proposal. They say his approach will be flexible and pragmatic. He'll give Congress his overall principles, expanding coverage, controlling costs, and improving quality, and then work with leading lawmakers on the details. But there will be a deadline. The new president wants a new plan underway before the year is out.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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Obama Rounds Out His Health Care Team

Obama Rounds Out His Health Care Team

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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 hide caption

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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.

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."