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Weekly Pulse: Not In Kansas Anymore: Sebelius Tapped to Lead HHS

By Lindsay Beyerstein, TMC Mediawire Blogger

The Obama administration unveiled two major nominations on Monday: Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius for Secretary of Health and Human Services and Nancy-Ann DeParle for health czar. The czar is responsible for shepherding healthcare reform legislation through Congress and the Secretary will be responsible for implementing the plan.

Correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation, but we’d like to remind everyone that In These Times floated Sebelius’ name for HHS in September of 2008; Ramon Castellblanch wrote:

Three major obstacles face the next secretary. One, tens of millions of Americans lack health insurance. Two, any attempt to deal with this crisis will result in the private insurance industry — and its lobbyists — swooping in to turn policy changes into a windfall for itself. And three, for eight years, the department has been crippled by low morale and staff departures caused by Bush administration mismanagement.The next secretary must have the ability to help undo this damage.

Castellblanch argued at the time that Sebelius was the right person for the job because of her executive experience as governor, her knowledge of the insurance industry, and her strong progressive values.

Julie Burkhart of RH Reality Check writes of Sebelius’ record as governor, "[Gov. Sebelius] has been a tireless advocate for expanded health care for pregnant women, for comprehensive and medically accurate sexuality education and for more accommodating adoption statutes."

Naturally, the right wing hates the Sebelius nomination because of the governor’s strong pro-choice record, but there doesn’t seem to be much they can do about it.

Anti-abortion groups are insinuating that Sebelius is a close ally of Dr. George Tiller, a Kansas physician who performs late-term abortions. Operation Rescue has tried unsuccessfully to shut down his clinic for years, making Dr. Tiller the White Whale of the Kansas anti-abortion movement. The alleged smoking gun is the revelation that Sebelius invited Tiller to the governor’s mansion for dinner. As Ezra Klein points out in the American Prospect, Tiller and his staff did dine with Sebelius, but only because they placed the winning bid at fund raising auction.

Burckhart reports in RH Reality that the Speaker of the Kansas House, Mike O’Neal, introduced two anti-choice bills on Tuesday in an attempt to embarrass the governor on abortion. Presumably, he hopes to force Sebelius to veto the bills before her confirmation hearing.

Senators Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts of Kansas, both conservative Republicans, have pledged to support Sebelius. Brownback says abortion is murder. So, it might seem odd that he’s supporting the ardently pro-choice Sebelius. Once again, home state boosterism triumphs over the "rights of the unborn." Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly concludes that Sebelius’ confirmation is all but assured: If Operation Rescue can’t even pick up Sam Brownback, the religious right doesn’t have the political muscle to sustain a serious senate fight.

The liberal group Catholics United is also supporting Sebelius, Sarah Hepola reports in Salon.

As governor, Sebelius proposed that the state provide health insurance for every uninsured child in Kansas from birth to age five. In 2008, Jonathan Stein of Mother Jones praised Gov. Sebelius for vetoing a voter-disenfranchising ID law and nixing unhealthy coal-fired power plants.

Sebelius’s record as a reform-minded insurance commissioner may provide a preview of coming attractions at HHS. Sebelius served as commissioner from 1995 to 2002. As a candidate, she signaled her independence by refusing campaign contributions from the insurance industry. As insurance commissioner, Sebelius backed a number of pro-consumer reforms for health insurance including a patient’s bill of rights, mandated maternity coverage, and enhanced privacy protections. Sebelius also blocked a proposed merger of Kansas’ non-profit health insurance company, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, by a for-profit company because the deal would have increased insurance premiums and forced hospitals to turn away patients who couldn’t pay. The insurance companies fought Sebelius all the way to the Supreme Court and lost.

Obama’s pick for health czar, Nancy-Ann DeParle, is a health policy veteran from the Clinton administration. Matt Cooper of Talking Points Memo notes that she is married to New York Times reporter Jason DeParle.

Nancy-Ann DeParle currently works for a private venture capital firm and serves on the boards of various medical device companies. There was speculation that the Obama administration might scrap the health czar post all together after former Sen. Tom Daschle was forced to abandon his confirmation bid when his income tax irregularities came to light. Ezra Klein writes in the Prospect that DeParle seems like an odd choice given the health czar’s portfolio as the president’s top liaison to Congress on health care reform:

The reason it’s hard to evaluate DeParle is because it’s not clear what she — or the Office of Health Reform — is meant to be doing. The OHR, remember, was built for Daschle: He wanted space in the West Wing where he could run the policy and politics of the health reform process. But few expect DeParle to assume a similar role. The OMB and the NEC have taken a central role in policy design and it’s hard to imagine the Office of Health Reform muscling control of the process away from them. Daschle was a political heavyweight whose particular basket of congressional-liaison qualifications is not reproduced in DeParle.

DeParle must, of course, resign from the boards of medical device companies before she takes the job. According to the Obama administration, DeParle’s recent affiliations present no conflict of interest–time will tell whether that assertion bears up under scrutiny.

On the whole, Sebelius and DeParle are two strong picks to advance Barack Obama’s healthcare reform agenda. If confirmed, these two nominees will bring energy and experience to the fight.

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