In health care, Sebelius takes on no small task

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 2, 2009 

US NEWS SEBELIUS 1 TB

Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius speaks after being nominated by President Barack Obama as the Health & Human Services Secretary.

ZBIGNIEW BZDAK / MCT

WASHINGTON — Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius will face her first test later this week after agreeing Monday to help lead President Barack Obama's effort to overhaul health care.

She'll be under the spotlight Thursday when the White House holds a health care summit with representatives from the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, medicine and public health, as well as both political parties.

"It's a crisis punishing families, battering businesses, squeezing our states, and increasingly, imperiling our own budget," Obama said Monday when he introduced her as his choice to run the massive Department of Health and Human Services.

Amid the gilded elegance of the White House East Room, Sebelius said that his request was "a responsibility I could not refuse. I am deeply honored by your faith in me, Mr. President."

She'll be tasked with reforming a system whose costs in recent years have risen four times faster than incomes and left a million people each year without health insurance.

Obama said that Sebelius "knows health care inside and out" and has "been on the front lines of our health care crisis. ... Kathleen has remarkable intellect, unquestioned integrity and the kind of pragmatic wisdom you'll tend to find in a Kansan."

That drew some silent chuckles from two Republican guests at the ceremony, former Sen. Bob Dole, a revered Kansas political figure, and current Sen. Pat Roberts, a longtime Sebelius friend.

"People in Kansas, we stick together," said Obama, whose mother and grandparents were from the state. "And I've got my own Kansas roots."

Kansas' other senator, Republican Sam Brownback, didn't attend. Spokesman Brian Hart said that he had previous commitments.

The presence of Dole and Roberts was another example of the White House quest for bipartisanship as it attempts another huge and expensive shake-up of the status quo.

Obama said he hoped that the Republican guests were "a symbol of how we can move this issue forward. I don't think anybody has a silver bullet when it comes to health care."

Indeed, Roberts has raised questions about the $634 billion for health care in Obama's budget. In a statement Monday, however, Roberts spokeswoman Molly Haase said, "He has always said they will work together where they agree and have a discussion and dialogue where they disagree."

Sebelius, 60, is in the middle of her second term. She became a rising star in the Democratic Party by showing that it was possible to win a Republican state. An early Obama ally, she was on his short list for vice president.

Sebelius won't handle health care reform alone. Obama used the occasion to also introduce Nancy-Ann DeParle, who will head the White House Office for Health Reform.

She was a health care official at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration and also director of the agency that ran Medicare and Medicaid at the time.

DeParle's role, however, on several corporate boards of companies involved in health technology and pharmaceuticals has raised questions about possible conflicts of interest with her new position.

A White House spokesman said that DeParle would be stepping down from her corporate posts and would recuse herself from any future discussions that could involve her corporate work.

DeParle's White House role had been a hat that former Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Obama's first choice for HHS, was supposed to wear as well.

The job appeared to be tailored for him because of his experience and longtime alliances on Capitol Hill, where Obama's health reform agenda is likely face obstacles.

Political pressure forced Daschle to withdraw, however, after he announced that he'd paid $146,000 in back taxes and interest.

Sebelius, for all the praise coming her way because of her efforts on health care as governor and Kansas insurance commissioner before that, doesn't know Capitol Hill well.

Moreover, if confirmed by the Senate, she'll be juggling numerous concerns. Improving food safety and emergency preparedness are just two at the top of the next HHS secretary's to-do list.

"She's got major challenges in front of her well beyond health reform," said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health care research and advocacy group.

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