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White House Spotlights Health Care


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. This week, the White House turns to a sweeping policy review on health care, after weeks of focusing on the financial sector, the federal budget and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama will host a White House summit later this week on the health care system. Yesterday he named Kathleen Sebelius, the governor of Kansas, as his new secretary of Health and Human Services. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: President Obama nominated Sebelius just as he is ramping up the debate over health care reforms. He's already asked Congress to pass a health care bill this year and his budget calls for a $634 billion down-payment on a 10-year plan he says would control costs, improve quality, and provide near-universal insurance coverage. Yesterday he said Governor Sebelius knows health care inside and out and that she's right person for a battle the White House calls a fiscal imperative, not just a moral imperative.

President BARACK OBAMA: The crushing costs of health care causes a bankruptcy in America every 30 seconds. And by the end of this year, it could cause 1.5 million Americans to lose their homes. It's a crisis punishing families, battering businesses, squeezing our states, and increasingly imperiling our own budget. Health care is one of the fastest growing expenses in the federal budget and it's one we simply cannot sustain.

LIASSON: The president said Sebelius's experience in Kansas includes a stint as state insurance commissioner and six years of working across the isle with the Republican legislature.

President OBAMA: As a governor she's been on the front lines of our health care crisis. She has a deep knowledge of what the burden of crushing costs does to our families and businesses. That's why she fought to guarantee Kansans access to quality affordable health care and sought to secure it for every Kansas child from birth to age five.

LIASSON: What Mr. Obama didn't mention was that Sebelius tried twice to get Republicans to agree to expand medical coverage by raising the cigarette tax. She failed both times. But yesterday she said she was ready to try again at health care reform on a national scale.

Governor KATHLEEN SEBELIUS (Democrat, Kansas): Business and labor leaders, teachers and health care providers, policy makers at the state, local and national level, parents and children, are ready to join this effort. This isn't a partisan challenge. It's an American challenge, and one that we can't afford to ignore.

LIASSON: The president had originally chosen former Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle to the lead the health reform effort, but he withdrew because of tax problems. Daschle would have worn two hats, as both HHS secretary and White House health care czar. Sebelius will not have those dual roles. The president announced yesterday that the White House Office of Health Reform will be led by Nancy-Ann Min DeParle, a veteran of the Clinton administration's budget office and a former health care official in Tennessee. DeParle also headed the health care finance administration in the 1990s, the agency responsible for Medicare and Medicaid.

Now that he has his team in place, the president will turn his attention to health care reform in earnest. On Thursday he's inviting members of the Congress from both parties and representatives from all the interest groups in the health care debate to the White House. Insurance companies, big business, drug makers, doctors, hospitals and consumers will be there, says White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): This is the beginning of a long process to bring all of those involved together to begin to discuss these problems. Part of the solution is getting everybody in a room to discuss it, as the president talked about getting people around a big table and doing that in a public way. I think this is the beginning of that in order to seek some of that consensus.

LIASSON: During the campaign, the president purposed a plan that would require children to be covered and would create a government run health plan to compete with private insurers. Now White House aides say he's not wedded to any specific proposal. They say his approach will be flexible and pragmatic. He'll give Congress his overall principles, expanding coverage, controlling costs, and improving quality, and then work with leading lawmakers on the details. But there will be a deadline. The new president wants a new plan underway before the year is out.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.