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Challenges for new health secretary Sebelius

Latest update : 2009-03-03

Nominating Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius as his new Secretary of Health and Health Services, Obama said the issue of healthcare would be 'imperative' in saving the American economy.

AFP - President Barack Obama warned on Monday that America's fast-worsening economic plight meant his government simply could not afford to fail in the politically perilous task of reforming healthcare.

As he nominated Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius as his new health secretary, Obama argued that relieving families and businesses of the soaring costs of healthcare payments was a key to solving the crisis.

He made latest bid to advance an ambitious political agenda on another miserable day for the economy, as stocks plunged to levels last seen in 1997 and insurer AIG needed a new government bailout -- worth 30 billion dollars.

"We cannot fail to act yet again," Obama said, vowing to make good on a campaign promise to offer "quality, affordable healthcare" to every American.

"Fixing what's wrong with our health care system is no longer just a moral imperative, but a fiscal imperative."

"The crushing cost of healthcare 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.

Sebelius, 60, who requires Senate confirmation as the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), was once in the running to be Obama's Democratic vice presidential nominee.

"We can't fix the economy without fixing healthcare," Sebelius said. "The work won't be easy, but bringing about real change rarely is."

Obama also picked health expert Nancy-Ann DeParle as his counselor to coordinate White House efforts to achieve healthcare reform.

Both appointments replaced that of former senator Tom Daschle, originally nominated to simultaneously serve as HHS secretary and White House health czar but who was forced to pull out after a storm over unpaid taxes.

Obama shone a spotlight on healthcare after he placed the issue, a political gamble that has dogged previous Democratic presidents, at the center of his budget last week.

The president asked Congress for 634 billion dollars over 10 years as a "down payment" on refashioning a largely private system that offers some of the world's best care, but leaves nearly 46 million Americans uninsured, according to the National Coalition on Healthcare, an umbrella reform group.

His insistence on pushing the legislation confounds critics who warn Obama must curtail his political wish list because of the economic turmoil and Republicans who charge his plans are too expensive.

Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy, who plans to pilot healthcare reform through Congress, despite his battle with brain cancer, welcomed the appointment of Sebelius.

"Governor Sebelius has an impressive background, experience, dedication and ability on health care issues and will be an excellent Secretary of Health and Human Services," he said in a statement.

"I look forward very much to working with her in the months ahead to achieve genuine health reform for all Americans."

But the arrival of Sebelius in Washington was heralded by newspaper stories delving into the questionable success of her past efforts to reform healthcare in Kansas and Republican criticisms.

The Republican National Committee distributed research accusing the president of plotting billions of dollars of new taxes on Americans to pay for healthcare.

It accused Sebelius of being "in the pocket" of labor unions and of also being a prophet of high taxation.

White House officials have already warned Republicans would try to derail the president's healthcare plan and force a victory that would severely diminish his political clout.

Former president Bill Clinton's failed healthcare reform drive, under the direction of his wife Hillary Clinton, still sends shudders down the spines of leading Democrats.

The plans are guaranteed a rough ride in Congress, where attempts to cover all Americans are often derided by minority Republicans as European-style socialized medicine."

Obama plans to finance the reforms by letting tax breaks for the rich expire in 2011, and to streamline other healthcare programs.

One of Obama's first actions after taking office in January was signing into law expanded healthcare coverage for low-income children, a measure vetoed by former president George W. Bush.

Date created : 2009-03-03