Thursday, April 2, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, President Barack Obama’s choice for health secretary, told senators Thursday that she wants to transform Medicare and Medicaid with a focus on prevention and primary care.

It’s imperative to steer resources “toward wellness rather than sickness,” Sebelius said in prepared testimony for the Senate Finance Committee, where senators were expected to ask more questions about her policies and politics than about $7,000 worth of mistakes she made on her taxes.

Overseeing the giant government-run insurance programs for the elderly, disabled and poor would be a major responsibility, and Sebelius said improvements are needed.

Sebelius said that, if confirmed, she hopes to use technology to better align Medicare and Medicaid payments with quality care. The payments to health care providers are often criticized as alternately inadequate or excessive.

There’s a sense that the Senate needs to act quickly on Sebelius’ nomination so lawmakers can push ahead with the ambitious schedule they have set for health reform legislation this year. The Finance Committee votes on whether to send the nomination to the full Senate.

Sebelius told senators that “health reform would be my mission,” a pledge she also made earlier this week to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Sebelius, 60, would run a department of 67,000 employees and a budget of more than $700 billion. Medicare, Medicaid, the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health would be in her purview.

In her appearance Tuesday before the other Senate committee, Sebelius stuck closely to the administration’s line. She supports giving all Americans the option of joining a government-sponsored health care plan, something the insurance industry and most Republicans strongly oppose. She said she would prefer health care legislation that both parties can support, but she wouldn’t rule out using a parliamentary strategy to pass a bill with Democrats only.

For the most part, the hearing was a low-key affair.

That evening, the administration disclosed that Sebelius had filed amended tax returns for three years. An accountant she’d hired found “unintentional errors” and Sebelius and her husband, Gary, a federal magistrate judge in Kansas, paid a total of $7,040 in back taxes and $878 in interest to amend returns from 2005-07.

Sebelius said the tax mistakes involved charitable contributions, the sale of a home and business expenses. She said she filed the amended returns as soon as the errors were discovered.

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, told reporters Wednesday he felt Sebelius made “a good-faith effort” to pay her taxes correctly in the first place and the errors should not count against her.

Grassley suggested he’s more concerned with Sebelius’ views on Medicare and Medicaid, and how her support for abortion rights might influence policies at the Health and Human Services Department.

Several Obama administration nominees have run into tax troubles, notably the president’s first pick for HHS secretary, former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle. He withdrew from consideration while apologizing for failing to pay $140,000 in taxes and interest.

Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., issued a statement supporting Sebelius.


Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.


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