Daschle says health care system broken

Tom Daschle told a Senate committee Thursday he is ready to “change the paradigm in this country on health care” if he gets the job as Health and Human Services secretary, receiving a friendly reception from the panel and paving the way for his expected confirmation.

The South Dakota Democrat gave few specifics on his plans for health care reform during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee. Instead, he focused on the broad theme that the nation’s health care system is severely broken and will drag down the economy further unless fixed.

“The flaws in our health care system are pervasive and corrosive,” he said. “They threaten our health and economic security.”

The former Senate majority leader added that the nation’s health care strategy has failed to adequately stress preventative care. He named childhood and adult obesity as among the nation’s greatest health threats.

“Coverage after you get sick should be a second line of defense,” he said. “Today, it’s often the first line of defense.”

Mr. Daschle’s appearance before the panel was the first of a bevy of confirmation hearings to take place on Capitol Hill during the next few weeks for President-elect Barack Obama’s Cabinet nominees.

The health committee won’t vote on whether Mr. Daschle’s nomination should be sent to the full Senate for a vote. Instead, that responsibility lies with the Senate Finance Committee, which has yet to schedule its own confirmation hearing.

Mr. Daschle, an early supporter of Mr. Obama’s presidential bid, is a strong proponent of the president-elect’s health care reform plan that includes some form of universal insurance coverage — a position opposed by most Republicans.

But Mr. Daschle faced little resistance from Republican or Democratic members of the committee during the more than two-hour hearing, suggesting he will have little trouble securing the nomination.

“Tom Daschle understands the urgency and the challenge of health reform,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and committee chairman. “Reform is urgently needed and Tom Daschle is just the person for the job.”

Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah said Mr. Daschle “will make a great secretary of Health and Human Services and I intend to support you when you’re there as well.”

Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the health committee’s ranking Republican, did warn Mr. Daschle against expanding insurance coverage through more government bureaucracies, such as Medicaid.

“Forcing private plans to compete with a public program like Medicaid, with its price controls and ability to shift costs to private payers, will inevitably doom true competition,” he said. “Any new insurance coverage must be delivered through private health insurance plans.”

The former senator also has plenty of opponents off Capitol Hill, who say his proposals for government mandates would trample physician-patient privacy rights, among other criticisms.

“Daschle’s proposal is incompatible with the traditional Hippocratic Oath,” said Robert E. Moffit, director of the Center for Health Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “Moreover, health insurers should be able to innovate in the coverage of medical services without waiting for permission from a special class of political appointees.”

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