- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Obama to pitch health care plan

President Obama is expected to use a significant portion of his Tuesday evening address before a joint session of Congress to highlight his plans for health care reform.

With the $787 billion economic stimulus package signed into law, the administration and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill are expected to turn their attention toward revamping the nation’s health care system, with a push toward some form of universal insurance coverage.

Mr. Obama will use his speech to tell Congress and the nation that overhauling the country’s health system is the country’s next significant priority, according to widespread speculation.

The president is expected to outline his plans to pay for his proposed reforms when he submits his budget request to Congress later this week.

Many experts expect a reform plan to hit the House floor just before or after the next congressional recess in April.

The timing of the a health care package is almost as crucial as what it includes, health care experts and Hill watchers say. The administration is keen to see a package move quickly through Congress, hoping to avoid the pitfalls of former President Bill Clinton’s failed 1993 attempt at health care reform. Mr. Clinton’s administration was blamed for waiting months to unveil a plan, which slowed momentum for the proposal and gave critics time to mount a concerted opposition.

Cabinet whispers

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who has pushed for health care reforms in her state and was an early ally of President Obama’s bid for the White House, has emerged as the leading contender to head the Department of Health and Human Services.

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was Mr. Obama’s top choice for the HHS post until the South Dakota Democrat’s highly publicized tax problems forced him to withdraw from consideration three weeks ago. Beltway speculation increasingly has pointed to Mrs. Sebelius as now having the best shot at the job.

But the administration, wanting to avoid further embarrassment over who will get the HHS post, has been extremely tight-lipped about possible candidates.

Mrs. Sebelius, a Democrat, said Sunday she had not talked with the president about joining his Cabinet.

“There really isn’t anything to tell. I haven’t had any meetings about the position,” she told Associated Press while in Washington for the winter meeting of the National Governors Association.

Mrs. Sebelius served as state insurance commissioner before being elected governor in 2002. Under her leadership, the state has expanded cancer screenings, allowed more residents to keep their health insurance up to 18 months after leaving their jobs and granted income tax deductions to help some lower their insurance costs.

Another name mentioned for the HHS post has been Tennessee Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen. The Wall Street Journal on Monday editorialized in support of Mr. Bredesen, who has been credited with bringing skyrocketing costs of the state’s health insurance program for low-income residents under control.

State’s health plan a bust, study says

Massachusetts’ unprecedented state-organized health care plan has failed to achieve its goal of universal care and should not be used as national model, according to a study released last week by two health care advocacy groups.

The report found that the Massachusetts health care system - widely regarded as an example of how to provide universal coverage and keep costs low - has been more expensive than expected. The budget overruns have forced the state to siphon about $150 million from safety-net providers such as public hospitals and community clinics.

The report was sponsored by Physicians for a National Health Program and Public Citizen, which advocate a national single-payer system in which doctors, hospitals and other health care providers are paid from a single fund administered by the government.

Though at least half of Massachusetts’ previously uninsured residents now have health insurance under the state plan, many low-income residents who used to receive free care now face co-payments, premiums and deductibles, the study showed.

Since the states reforms were enacted in 2006, premiums under the state insurance program have increased 9.4 percent.

The Massachusetts plan requires every resident to obtain health care insurance. It provides subsidized health care for residents earning up to 100 percent of the federal poverty level and partially subsidizes health care for those earning up to 300 percent.

“Massachusetts’ failed attempt at reform is little more than a repeat of experiments that haven’t worked in other states,” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen Health Research Group. “To repeat that model on a national scale would be nothing short of Einstein’s definition of insanity.”

The study found that a national nonprofit single-payer system could save Massachusetts about $8 billion to $10 billion a year in reduced administrative costs.

Sean Lengell covers health care policy and can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.

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