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Kansas Gov. Sebelius is picked to lead Health and Human Services

As secretary, she'd work on Obama's healthcare overhaul.

March 01, 2009|Washington Post

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on Saturday accepted President Obama's request to become his Health and Human Services secretary, stepping into a central role in the new administration's ambitious effort to overhaul the nation's healthcare system.

The White House is to convene a summit on healthcare in a few days, an early step in Obama's plan to vastly expand the reach of the nation's healthcare system.

A formal announcement of her nomination is planned Monday.

The summit, the first in a series of open meetings planned around the country, is intended to call attention to problems in the nation's system, including soaring costs and big coverage gaps -- with the hope of rallying public support to counter expected opposition.

Similar to last week's summit on fiscal responsibility, the health session will open with remarks by Obama and then divide into working groups run by administration officials.

In his budget proposal unveiled last week, Obama set aside $634 billion for a new healthcare reserve fund that over the next decade would serve as a substantial down payment on the cost of moving the country closer to universal health coverage. About 46 million people in America lack healthcare coverage, a number likely to grow as the economic downturn throws more out of work.

If confirmed by the Senate, Sebelius would fill a key Cabinet position originally intended for Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat who withdrew from consideration last month over his failure to pay $146,000 in back taxes and interest before he was nominated.

The withdrawal of Daschle, a former Senate majority leader versed in the intricate ways not only of Congress but of the nation's $2.3-trillion healthcare system, was a blow to the administration. Steering the costly healthcare agenda will be complicated and politically charged.

Sebelius would inherit a department of 65,000 employees responsible for public health, food safety, scientific research and the administration of the Medicare and Medicaid, which serve 90 million Americans.

The solvency of those two programs is yet another worry confronting the administration, which has vowed to take on entitlement reform.

The department's budget, consumed largely by those two programs, exceeds $700 billion.

Sibelius' healthcare experience stems primarily from her eight years as Kansas insurance commissioner and her work as governor overseeing the Medicaid health program for the poor.

She tried unsuccessfully to expand health coverage in the state through higher cigarette taxes.

Under her watch, Kansas has added tens of thousands of low-income children to state health programs.

More than a month into the administration, few Obama appointees have been placed in the health agency, and the president has yet to name a chief for the major health agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration or the National Institutes of Health.

An administration source said Obama would probably nominate someone else for a second post Daschle had created for himself: director of a new White House Office of Health Reform.

One name mentioned for the job is former Clinton administration advisor Nancy-Ann DeParle, who would take over the effort to create, sell and implement the prospective healthcare overhaul.

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