Saturday, March 7, 2009

Obama Looks to Governor Sebelius for HHS Secretary Role

In an economy that has seen the unemployment rate increase steadily, it may seem surprising that there has been one job opening left unfilled for months. The role of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary is unlike most jobs, however, and President Obama looking to fill that role is unlike most executives perusing resumes. But his recent choice of Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius to take the promotion might be the one that works.

President Obama though he found the ideal candidate to fill the HHS position in former U.S. Senator Tom Daschle, a choice that was made more than a month prior to Obama’s inauguration. His experience in health care reform and interest in the subject, even the penning of a book about the health care crisis in America, made Daschle an ideal candidate; that was until Congressional confirmation loomed and information leaked that the HHS nominee failed to pay $140,000 in back taxes. Daschle kindly withdrew his nomination.

Weeks into the new Obama administration and countless discussions about the health care system—funding provided by the stimulus package, improvements to be included in the new multi-trillion dollar budget—came and went with no Obama-affiliated person in the important and influential position of Health and Human Services Secretary. Not only does HHS oversee more than 300 governmental programs and research projects, but the person who accepts the highest role in the organization will play an integral part in pursuing much-needed changes in the health care system, one that currently excludes more than 47 million Americans who are uninsured.

The name of Gov. Sebelius has been bandied about since Daschle withdrew from the nomination process, though it wasn’t until Monday, March 2, that it became official when President Obama announced her as the nominee. Sebelius is a 60-year old two-term governor, daughter of former Ohio Governor John Gilligan, who played an integral role in Obama’s presidential campaign and was widely rumored to have been considered for the vice presidential role and other Cabinet positions.

Sebelius boasts of numerous qualifications to take over the HHS Secretary position, going back to her role as Kansas’ Insurance Commissioner during the better part of the 1990s, during which time she made it a mission to confront HMOs who denied care to patients while refusing to accept contributions or gifts from insurance companies. She was also touted for blocking the proposed merger between Blue Cross Blue Shield and Anthem, as it would have provided fewer health care choices and higher prices for Kansas residents.

Once Sebelius took over the role of Governor, she made health care reform a priority, focusing on prevention and wellness programs, reduction of administrative costs within the health care system, development of health insurance identification cards, and the upgrade of the system’s technology. She began the Health Care Cost Containment Commission, which brought together members of the state government, insurance companies, and those affected in the business community to pursue the further reduction of costs. Though a 2007 effort to expand health care for children failed, she continued to pursue efforts of health care reform.

As the new HHS Secretary nominee, Sebelius looks to be confirmed without much complication. While pro-life organizations have been quick to make their objections to her nomination known, as Sebelius has defended abortion rights in a number of cases. Though she consistently defended the right to safe abortions, most of her efforts have been aimed at reducing the amount of abortions via adoption incentives, sex education in schools, and health services for pregnant women and their families.

Opponents of the Sebelius nomination cite the role of HHS Secretary as having a direct line route to abortion policy. The Catholic League President went so far as to call her an “enemy of the unborn,” and the current Archbishop of Kansas City prohibited her from receiving Communion in her Catholic church under she publicly changed her stance on abortion.

But despite opposition from far-right groups, it seems that most members of the Senate are willing to vote for confirmation because of her many qualifications for the role. Many are predicting some abortion-related questions in the upcoming confirmation hearings but nothing that will create an obstacle in the ultimate vote.