Sebelius Key to Achieving Universal Health Care – National Consumers League

by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Universal health care has long been a top priority for the National Consumers League since our early Josephine Roche, who served as adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt and wrote the first universal health care bill during the late 1930s. Pieces of that legislation laid the groundwork for the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

President Obama pledged throughout his campaign to enact laws to provide that every man woman and child in U.S. has access to affordable, safe, and effective health care. It is unconscionable that the richest nation in the world hasn’t found a way to provide basic care for its citizens. The results of this failed policy are disastrous: 46 million Americans have no health insurance, and an abundance of bankruptcies due to lack of health insurance among consumers who face illness or accident and have to pay out-of-pocket for medical expenses. As many Americans lose their jobs in this difficult economy, and millions of families are added to the rolls of the uninsured, American companies, most notably the auto industry, have to pay $1,000 extra for every car they sell – an expense not borne by their European or Japanese counterparts – because of health care costs for their employees and retirees.

President Obama’s first pick to steer the nation on the path to universal care, former South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle, withdrew his name from the running when it turned out he hadn’t paid an important tax bill. That was a shame, because Daschle, the author of a book that has served as a manifesto on health care reform, knew where he wanted to go. He had the kind of close relationships in Congress required to steer this complicated legislative ship through the minefield that is inevitable as we see special interests fighting over every line in the health care reform bills.

The good news is that the President has nominated Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, who looks to be a friend to consumers. A democrat in a red state (she enjoys a 57 percent approval rating) who casts herself as a “consumer champion,” Sebelius opposed rationed care and rapid hospital discharges as governor of Kansas, declined campaign contributions from industries she regulated while serving as Insurance Commissioner, and in 2002 rejected the purchase of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas by Anthem Inc, a company based in Indianapolis. Sebelius argued that the sale would result in higher premiums in Kansas, and she won the subsequent lawsuit challenging her decision.

The important thing to know about Sebelius (and a skill that will serve her well in the HHS post) is that she has fought battles to advance the cause of universal health care in Kansas, calling for universal coverage in her 2007 State of the State address, fighting to insure coverage of children 5 and under. She also comes from a political family; her father was Ohio Governor John Gilligan and her father in law, John Sebelius, served in Congress.

As we seek to finally achieve universal health coverage in the United States, this cabinet slot is perhaps more important than any other. I think NCL’s Josephine Roche would be pleased with the choice of Governor Sebelius to guide our nation in its quest to achieve universal care for all Americans (though Roche would no doubt be shocked to learn we hadn’t achieved it in 2009!) – and I think we should be too.