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Year One at HHS

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius goes over the year in health care form an HHS perspective.

Ed. Note: We regret that Secretary had to cancel her chat yesterday due to an extended health reform meeting, but thank her for agreeing to draft a post summing up the year in health care from an HHS perspective:

Last January, President Obama set a clear course for his administration when he said "we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin the work of remaking America." A year later, there’s a lot of work left to be done. But as we look back at last year, we can be encouraged by the significant steps we took to improve America’s health and strengthen opportunity for the people who need it most.

Here are nine ways the Obama administration kept Americans healthy, delivered critical services, and began the work of remaking America in 2009.

We brought the voices of everyday Americans to the health care reform debate.

From the regional forums we held across the country last spring to our new website, the administration reached out to tens of thousands of Americans over the last year to get their questions, concerns, and ideas about how to fix our health care system. Whether it was the man who told us health care costs were a "noose" around the neck of his small business, or the father who explained that he was paying over $30,000 a year for health care because his son had a preexisting condition, these voices propelled historic health reform legislation through both houses of Congress.

We helped contain the H1N1 flu pandemic.

As soon as the H1N1 flu was identified in April, we sprang into action. We developed a safe, effective vaccine in six months – three months less than it usually takes. Working with state and local partners, we were able to vaccinate more than 60 million Americans in the three months after the first dose of vaccine came off the production line, the vast majority of them in high-priority, at-risk groups. We also launched an aggressive outreach campaign, using television, radio, print, and web communications to educate Americans about how to prevent the spread of H1N1. Last Sunday, we kicked off National Influenza Vaccination Week – and with more than 135 million doses of vaccine available across the country, we’re encouraging all Americans to go get vaccinated and help us save lives as we approach the worst months of flu season. To find out where vaccine is available in your neighborhood, visit

We helped Americans weather the worst recession in 70 years.

When President Obama took office, foreclosures were skyrocketing, credit markets were frozen, and the economy was shedding 700,000 jobs a month.  As America’s families have struggled to get back on their feet, HHS has reached out to give them a hand. Under the Recovery Act, we made almost $44 billion in enhanced Federal Medical Assistance Percentage funding available so that qualified Americans could keep essential health services. And as part of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, we released more than $2.6 billion to help low-income Americans pay their heating bills. 

We began the transformation to a high-quality, evidence-based, patient-centered health care system.

It’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again: we spend twice as much per person on health care as other wealthy countries but only get average health results. In 2009, our department supported a range of reforms that will help Americans get more bang for their health care buck. For example, we invested $80 million to reduce healthcare-associated infections, the infections you get once you’re already in the hospital that kill tens of thousands of Americans a year. We also announced two new “medical homes” demonstration projects that will support the kind of coordinated care models where patients are treated by teams of health care providers. Doctors are more satisfied, patients get better care, and costs go down. Our goal is to spread these successes.

We got serious about Medicare fraud.

With more than a billion claims totaling $425 billion paid out each year, Medicare is an inviting target for criminals.   In 2009, HHS and the Justice Department created a new partnership dedicated to protecting our health care dollars: the Healthcare Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team or HEAT. Under HEAT, we’re attacking fraud with new resources, a new spirit of collaboration, new high-tech approaches, and most important, new urgency. We’ve also more than tripled the number of Medicare fraud Strike Forces around the country from two to seven. Later this month, our department and Department of Justice will host the first-ever national healthcare fraud summit in Washington, DC, a gathering that will bring together federal and state officials, private sector executives, and law enforcement leaders to share ideas about the best ways to keep our health care dollars safe.

We focused on health outside the doctor's office.

How healthy we are depends on more than the care we get from doctors and nurses. It also depends on the food we eat, the air we breathe, the neighborhood we live in, and how much exercise we get. Last year, our department got serious about promoting health outside the health care system. Under the Recovery Act, we invested $650 million that will support the most proven strategies for reducing obesity and smoking in communities around the country. To help consumers, we developed a new food-labeling initiative that makes it easier for shoppers to get quick information about how healthy a product is. And building off the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which President Obama signed in June, we’re establishing a comprehensive tobacco regulation program.

We put kids first.

One of the first bills President Obama signed after he took office was the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act.  It gave more than four million previously uninsured children access to affordable health insurance.  But expanding access to insurance was just the first step. Since then, we’ve invested $40 million to reach out to eligible children and their parents and make sure they’re enrolled in CHIP or Medicaid, and have access to the care they need.  To give families relief, we also invested $2 billion to help states increase their number of child care slots.

We made investments to create jobs today – and tomorrow.

When President Obama signed the Recovery Act, he said there were two goals: to help America recover from the current economic crisis and to lay the foundation for future growth. Last year, we made several investments that served both purposes. For example, we invested over $1 billion in Recovery Act funds to help doctors around the country adopt electronic health records, which can reduce paperwork, medical errors, and health care costs. We also gave out more than $5 billion in new NIH grants to help bring us closer to the cures and treatments of the future for diseases from cancer to autism. And we invested more than $1 billion to expand community health centers around the country, add new services and providers, and give millions more Americans access to high-quality primary care.

We found new partners inside the Cabinet.

The President's Cabinet has 15 separate departments, but our country’s challenges can often only be addressed by partnerships. That's why in 2009, we made an unprecedented effort to build new, interdepartmental relationships that help us do our job more effectively. One example is our antifraud partnership with the Department of Justice. Another is the new Food Safety Working Group I co-chair with Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, which is updating the rules that keep our food supply safe. A third is the early education initiative we launched with the Department of Education that will allow us to coordinate early childhood services across the federal government and make sure our kids get all the support they need during their most formative years.

These are nine highlights from 2009, but it’s just the beginning of the list of investments and initiatives we began last year. Among other achievements, we taught Elmo how to sneeze, introduced the country to a rapping doc, and helped our Olympic athletes get ready for the Vancouver Games. And that’s just from our work on one issue.

As we look forward to President Obama’s second year, we’re humbled by the significant challenges that remain for our country. But we’re also excited to build on the progress we made in 2010.

Kathleen Sebelius is Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services