A celebration of Kansas coincided with a health care reform push this afternoon in the White House’s East Room, with President Obama — whose mother hailed from the Sunflower State — introducing Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as his pick to be Secretary of Health and Human Services.
"Kathleen has a remarkable intellect, unquestioned integrity, and the kind of pragmatic wisdom you’ll tend to find in a Kansan," said the president, whose late mother hailed from Wichita. "I know she will bring some much-needed grace and good humor to Washington and she will be a tremendous asset to my Cabinet."
Sebelius is Obama’s second choice for the position, having been thrust into the job after former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, withdrew his nomination amidst the news that he owed more than $140,000 in back taxes, mostly for a car and chauffer a wealthy friend had let him use for three years.
President Obama heralded Sebelius’s work in Kansas as a two-term state insurance commissioner, where "she refused campaign contributions from insurance companies and protected the people of Kansas from increases to their premiums by blocking a takeover of the state’s largest insurer. She helped draft a proposed national bill of rights for patients and served as the president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. And as a governor, she’s been on the front lines of our health care crisis."
Sebelius recalled that during Obama’s presidential campaign, he "talked about watching (his) mother spend her final days battling for her insurance benefits, the situation all too familiar to too many Americans. I spent time with the first lady as she reached out to ordinary women in cities and towns across America who came together to share their struggles and fears and voice hope for a change in the health care system that could save families from bankruptcy and deliver quality care to all …"
"This election was a vote for change and nowhere is that change more important that in reforming the health care system of America," she said.
"We have already done more to advance the cause of health care reform in the last month than we have in the last decade," the president said, noting bills that have already received his signature, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program expansion and some provisions in the stimulus bill.
Obama added that the stimulus bill will also direct $155 million towards 126 new health centers across America.
"These health centers will expand access to care by helping people in need, many with no health insurance, obtain access to comprehensive primary and preventive health care services," he said. "That helps relief the burden on emergency rooms across the country which have become primary care clinics for too many who lack coverage, often at taxpayer expense. This action will create thousands of new jobs, help provide health care to an estimated 750,000 low-can income Americans across the country, and take another important step toward affordable, accessible health care for all."
The president also announced his selection for counselor to the president and director of the White House Office for Health Reform, Nancy-Ann DeParle. The three were joined on stage by prominent Kansas Republicans Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., and the heads of two key congressional committees who will supervise health care reform on Capitol Hill, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chair of the Senate Finance Committee.
"What is required" to advance the cause of health care reform, the president said, "is a commitment to reform that focuses not on Democratic ideas or Republican ideas, but on ideas that work to rein in costs, expand access, and improve the quality of health care for the American people." The President noted that on Thursday he would hold a health care forum at the White House to be attended by "business and labor, doctors and insurers, Democrats and Republicans, as well as ordinary Americans from all walks of life."
Continuing the sound that bipartisan note, the president also mentioned that Sebelius is "the daughter of a Democratic governor and the daughter-in-law of a Republican congressman" and has a record of "bipartisan accomplishment."
"The fact that we’ve got Democrats and Republicans here, I hope, is a symbol of how we can move this issue forward," he said. "I don’t think anybody has a silver bullet when it comes to health care. There are some difficult tradeoffs to be made. There are some difficult choices to be made. But what I do know is this: That people of good will, collectively, recognize that the path that we’re on is unsustainable."
"All right," the president said as he ended the event. "Thank you, everybody. We’re going to go get to work."
– Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller