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Kansas governor takes Cabinet health post

Announcement timely as summit nears

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is President Barack Obama’s choice for secretary of health and human services.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is President Barack Obama’s choice for secretary of health and human services. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Michael A. Fletcher And Ceci Connolly Washington Post

WASHINGTON – 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 health care system.

Sebelius’ nomination comes just days before the White House is scheduled to convene a summit on health reform, an early step in the president’s ambitious plan to vastly expand the reach of the nation’s health care system. A formal announcement of her nomination will come on Monday.

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

If confirmed by the Senate, Sebelius would fill a vital Cabinet position originally slated to go to former Sen. Tom Daschle, who withdrew from consideration last month over his failure to pay $146,000 in back taxes and interest until he had already been nominated for the post.

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

The Kansas governor’s health care experience stems primarily from her eight years as state 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. Still, under her watch, Kansas has added tens of thousands of low-income children to state health programs.

As insurance commissioner, she rejected the sale of Blue Cross Blue Shield to an Indiana company, citing the prospect of higher premiums as the reason. The job, however, had less to do with the delivery of health care and achieving the sort of quality improvements and efficiencies that Obama and policy experts speak of when they describe a high-performing health system of the future.

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

Sebelius, the 60-year-old daughter of a former Ohio governor, served as state Insurance Commissioner before winning the 2002 governor’s race. She is halfway through a second term.

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