Image: Kathleen Sebelius
Orlin Wagner  /  AP file
Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, President Obama's choice to help reform health care as head of the Department of Health and Human Services, says, "The work won't be easy, but bringing about real change rarely is."
updated 3/2/2009 1:49:37 PM ET 2009-03-02T18:49:37

President Barack Obama turned to Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius Monday to help him overhaul a health care system whose cost has risen four times as fast as people's wages in recent years.

"Health care 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," Obama said as he introduced Sebelius as his choice to be secretary of health and human services and Nancy-Ann DeParle, a health policy figure during the Clinton administration, to head the White House Office for Health Reform.

"There's no easy formula for fixing our health care system," Obama conceded. But he added: "I didn't come to Washington to take the easy route ... I came here to work for the American people. I came here to deliver the sweeping change that they demanded when they went to the polls in November."

Obama brought Sebelius and DeParle to East Room of the White House on Monday afternoon, just days before he holds a White House summit on health care. Lawmakers from both parties and representatives of major interest groups, from insurers to drug companies to consumers, will attend.

The president also said he would release $155 million in the $787 billion economic stimulus measure to support 126 new health centers to give people more access to primary and preventive health care services. He said he was mindful of the difficulty ahead as he seeks to expand health care coverage, expecting tough choices and likely trade-offs.

Said Sebelius: "The work won't be easy, but bringing about real change rarely is."

Sebelius, who must be confirmed by the Senate, and DeParle will fill roles that the president wanted former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to hold as he tries to shepherd his health overhaul agenda through Congress.

Obama Introduces Kathleen Sebelius As HHS Secretary-Designate
Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images
Nancy-Ann DeParle will be Counselor to the President and Director for Health Reform.
Daschle would have worn two hats: health secretary and head of a White House health reform office. But Daschle withdrew his nomination after disclosing he had tax problems. That left the new administration scrambling to find a substitute secretary.

Among the 60-year-old governor's first challenges: winning lawmakers' support — and confirmation — to lead a vast bureaucracy that handles everything from Medicare to cancer research to food safety. She will also be a very public face for Obama's plans for health care, although DeParle will handle many of the new policy moves.

If confirmed, Sebelius will assume her new role as the recession has taken its toll on Medicare, which provides health care for older people and the disabled. Plunging tax revenues have weakened the program's giant hospital fund, accelerating its projected insolvency to as early as 2016. That is only about five years after the first baby boomers will start signing up for services.

The Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, is reeling from a seemingly endless series of safety lapses.

Sebelius is seen as a steady hand and an experienced public official who knows how to work across political lines. But she represents Obama's backup plan and will have to establish a working relationship with many key players. Daschle, a former Senate majority leader, intimately knew the ways of Washington and health care stakeholders.

Obama made his opening move on a health care overhaul last week: his speech to Congress and a budget that set aside $634 billion over 10 years as a down payment on coverage for all. It's a goal that could ultimately cost $1 trillion or more.

Obama wants to expand coverage while slowing the rate of increase in costs. Administration officials say they hope that will lead to a more affordable system, without the coverage gaps that leave an estimated 48 million people uninsured.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Gov. Sebelius tapped to head HHS


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