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Obama picks Sebelius as health secretary -official

PRESIDENT Barack Obama has decided to nominate Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius to head the Department of Health and Human Services and will formally announce the decision at a White House ceremony tomorrow, a US official said yesterday.

"This evening, the president asked Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius to serve as his Secretary of Health and Human Services, and she accepted," the administration official said on condition of anonymity. "The president will formally announce the nomination tomorrow afternoon at the White House."

The announcement came before a planned Health Care Summit at the White House on Thursday to discuss ways to reform the US health system, which will cost Americans some US$2.5 trillion this year while leaving about 45 million uninsured.

Obama campaigned on a pledge to expand health insurance coverage to most US citizens and moved in that direction on Thursday with his first budget blueprint, which calls for a US$634 billion reserve fund over 10 years to help pay for reforms.

The president has not offered a specific plan, saying instead that he wanted to work with Congress to formulate the proposals. Sebelius, 60, would play a key role in shaping the changes.

"Governor Sebelius brings extraordinary qualifications to this role," the administration official said.

"As a popular two-term governor known for her bipartisan approach, and as an insurance commissioner charged with standing up for better health care for her state, the governor has unique insight and experience to draw on as President Obama's partner in lowering health care costs and expanding coverage," the official said.

Sebelius had been considered a top contender for the Health Department position since former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle withdrew his nomination in a controversy over his payment of US$140,000 in back personal income taxes.

The Daschle withdrawal was a big blow for Obama, who made healthcare reform a key part of his agenda during the election campaign and was relying on the former Democratic leader to guide his program through the US Congress.


Daschle also had been named to oversee a new White House Office of Health Reform but withdrew from that position as well. Someone other than Sebelius is likely to oversee health reform from the White House, the official said.

Sebelius was an early Obama supporter and had been mentioned as a possible contender for the vice presidency and for several other Cabinet posts. As the Democratic governor of a largely Republican state, she has a reputation for working well with both political parties -- something that drew her to Obama.

"I see in (Obama) the capacity to really reach across party lines and get people together, where people see themselves as Americans once again and not Democrats and Republicans," she said in an interview last year.

She is strongly opposed by some groups that oppose abortion, with Operation Rescue saying on its website that she "is perhaps the most rabidly pro-abortion governor in the United States." The more liberal Catholics United, however, applauded her selection.

As head of the Department of Health and Human Services Sebelius will be charged with leading and implementing many of Obama's healthcare reforms, including the move to electronic medical records partly funded by the economic stimulus passed by Congress.

She will oversee agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates medicines, foods and other products that make up a quarter of the US economy. She also will be in charge of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which oversees health services for the elderly and the poor.

Before becoming governor, Sebelius spent eight years as state health commissioner. She helped block the sale of the state's Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurance program to a for-profit healthcare conglomerate because of concerns it would have raised rates.

As governor last year she urged the Kansas Legislature to adopt a health reform program that included promoting personal responsibility for health and wellness, paying for preventive care and providing all Kansans with affordable health insurance.

At her urging, Kansas is involved in an a prescription drug initiative that enables state residents to buy lower-cost drugs from state-approved pharmacies in Canada and Europe, according to her gubernatorial campaign website.


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