Obama aims big with healthcare drive

by Stephen Collinson - Mon Mar 2, WASHINGTON (AFP)

President Barack Obama Monday launched a high-stakes drive to remake US healthcare, in his latest attempt to ensure his sweeping agenda is an antidote to and not a victim of the economic crisis.
The president unveiled Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius as his new pick to be secretary for health and human services (HHS) ahead of a bi-partisan White House healthcare summit on Thursday.
He also picked health expert Nancy-Ann DeParle as his counselor to coordinate White House efforts to achieve healthcare reform.

"If we are going to help families, save businesses, and improve the long-term economic health of our nation, we must realize that fixing what's wrong with our health care system is no longer just a moral imperative, but a fiscal imperative," Obama said in a written statement.
"Healthcare reform that reduces costs while expanding coverage is no longer just a dream we hope to achieve -- it's a necessity we have to achieve."
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 over a storm over unpaid taxes.
Obama shone a spotlight on healthcare after he placed the issue, a political gamble which 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 which 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.
Sebelius, 60, who will require Senate confirmation and was once said to be in the running to be Obama's Democratic vice presidential nominee, is serving in her second term as governor of her heartland state.
News of her nomination was welcomed by Democratic Senator Max Baucus, who with ailing Democratic legend Senator Edward Kennedy, plans to pilot healthcare reform through Congress.
"Passing comprehensive health care reform is an absolute imperative this year, and as a former insurance commissioner Governor Sebelius really gets what needs to be done," Baucus said.
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 which 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.
But Obama's budget chief Peter Orszag warned on Sunday that there was no alternative to reforming healthcare -- a priority he said could end up being one of the primary drivers of economic recovery.
"We're going to get health care reform done this year. I think this proposal will get enacted," he said.
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.
With the US economic recession deepening, there are fears that millions more could be added to the ranks of the uninsured, since many rely on employers or their own wage checks to pay for coverage.

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