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Sebelius avoids mandated health insurance

The Health secretary nominee says everyone should have health coverage but stopped short of endorsing the idea of making individuals legally responsible for seeing that they're insured.
Senate Finance Cmte Holds Confirmation Hearing For Kathleen Sebelius
Secretary of Health and Human Services nominee Gov. Kathleen Sebelius tells the Senate Finance Committee, "I absolutely agree, and I know the president is totally committed to the proposal that every American should have health insurance."Win McNamee / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Health secretary nominee Kathleen Sebelius said Thursday that all Americans should have health coverage but she didn't say how they would get it.

During her confirmation hearing, Sebelius avoided endorsing a plan to make people legally responsible for seeing that they're insured.

She was responding to questions from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, who has proposed a so-called individual mandate in his own health reform plan.

Baucus, D-Mont., noted that during the presidential campaign Barack Obama proposed mandating that all children be insured — but not all adults. He asked Sebelius if she supported an individual mandate and whether she believes all Americans should be insured. Right now, about 48 million are not.

"I absolutely agree, and I know the president is totally committed to the proposal that every American should have health insurance," Sebelius said. But she didn't say how that should happen, or whether it should be the responsibility of individuals.

The concept of how, or whether, universal coverage would be mandated is just one of the thorny issues to be dealt with as Congress and the Obama administration aim to restructure the nation's health care system.

Senators want to move quickly on health overhaul legislation. To that end, Baucus told reporters he wants to get Sebelius' confirmation through his committee and the full Senate on Thursday.

Sebelius, a Democrat, is the governor of Kansas.

Tax matters
She did not address her tax problems that came to light earlier this week. The administration disclosed that Sebelius filed amended tax returns for three years after an accountant she'd hired to prepare for her confirmation hearings found what Sebelius called "unintentional errors."

Sebelius and her husband 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.

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the committee's top Republican, raised the issue during his opening statement.

"I take tax matters very seriously and I am eager for you to address those matters today," Grassley said.

But Grassley didn't return to the matter during questioning and Sebelius didn't bring it up.

There was discussion of a particularly divisive issue in the health overhaul debate: whether any new health system should include a government-run insurance plan that Americans could buy into, competing alongside private plans.

Obama, Baucus and other Democrats have endorsed that idea. Sebelius reiterated her support Thursday.

Republicans and insurance companies fear that a public plan would drive private insurers out of business.

Sebelius said that her home state of Kansas provides an example of an effectively functioning public plan. The state employees' health system includes a public plan option that competes with private insurers without putting them out of business, she said.

A number of conservative groups have raised loud opposition to Sebelius over the issue of abortion rights, which she supports. But she escaped any questions on that issue Thursday, and wasn't asked to address it during a hearing earlier in the week before the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, either.