Health Care Cuts a Tough Sell on Hill

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt journeys to Capitol Hill to defend a federal budget that proposes more than $100 billion worth of cuts in health programs dear to the hearts of most Democrats.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It is not necessarily fun to be a member of the president's cabinet. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt found that out yesterday. Not only did he get to testify for the first time before the new Democratic-led Congress, he had to defend a budget that proposed more than $100 billion worth of cuts in health programs dear to many Democrats' hearts.

Here's NPR's Julie Rovner.

JULIE ROVNER: The scene was the cavernous hearing room of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees just about every program in the Department of Health and Human Services. Again holding the gavel after a 12-year hiatus for Republican rule was Michigan Democrat John Dingell. When Dingell admitted he was out of practice, former Chairman Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, now relegated to minority status, was quick to jump to his aid.

Representative JOE BARTON (Republican, Texas): Mr. Chairman, if you feel a little rusty, I can, just to show you what a good fellow I am, I'll be happy to take over at any time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Representative BARTON: You know, until you feel un-rusty.

ROVNER: But Dingell, ever the prosecutor, quickly made clear that even at age 80, he still knows how to grill a witness. Like a prize bass on a hook, Leavitt was dragged by Dingell through a step-by-step dissection of the budget request for the state children's health insurance program. Democrats say it's insufficient. A hard look at the numbers, they add, shows the president's plan would actually result in more uninsured children, not fewer.

Leavitt at first tried to deflect the charge.

Secretary MIKE LEAVITT (Health and Human Services): Mr. Chairman, our purpose - I'm not able to follow the individual...

Representative JOHN DINGELL (Democrat, Michigan): Well...

Secretary LEAVITT: Let me give you the principle on which we would like to operate with you.

Representative DINGELL: Mr. Secretary, I'd love to get that, but I gotta get down to numbers cause we're talking about them. And I don't mean any disrespect...

Secretary LEAVITT: Well do you want to read them off again, and I'll ask my able accountants behind me to follow.

ROVNER: Leavitt eventually denied what every other independent analyst has found: that the administration's budget request for children's health insurance is only a third of what's needed to keep the program operating at current levels.

So Dingell tried another tact. Isn't it the case, he asked, that a family of three earning $36,000 a year would likely get kicked off the program under the president's proposal?

Again, Leavitt demurred, saying that wasn't a federal decision, but one each state would have to make individually.

Secretary LEAVITT: I can assure you that it is dependant completely on the state rules.

Representative DINGELL: In other words, Mr. Secretary, you're advising us to pray.

ROVNER: Leavitt did get some help from Republicans on the panel, like former Chairman Barton. Barton said the administration is right to re-focus the children's health insurance program on its original target: poor children.

Representative Barton: So those states that choose to cover adult children, maybe we should ask those states to pay for the cost of that coverage. Would that be an unreasonable request to these states?

ROVNER: But it wasn't just the children's health insurance program Democrats complained about. They also assailed the budget over its reductions in Medicare and Medicaid, rural health programs and money for workers at Ground Zero in New York.

Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey made an impassioned plea for greater funding for the National Institutes of Health.

Representative ED MARKEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Far greater than any threat from any terrorist to the average American is the threat that a disease which they already know exists in their family is going to afflict another person in their family. That's the greatest threat to every family in our country.

ROVNER: But Leavitt defended the administration's decision to pursue tax cuts and a balanced budget instead.

Secretary LEAVITT: The president obviously feels it's important for us to have a strong economy, and he views the tax cuts as integral to keeping a strong economy.

ROVNER: Today Leavitt gets to basically repeat his performance, this time for the Senate Finance Committee.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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