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The White House

Remarks by President Obama, HHS Secretary-designate Kathleen Sebelius, and White House Office of Health Reform Director Nancy-Ann DeParle

Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release                               March 2, 2009

East Room, The White House
12:57 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT:  Hello, everybody.  Last week, I unveiled a fiscal blueprint for America's future -- one that reflects the stark reality of our financial crisis while laying a lasting foundation for our common prosperity.  It makes both the sacrifices and the investments necessary to tackle the great challenges of our time -- challenges we face today as a consequence of decisions we deferred yesterday.  And one of these great challenges is health care.
The good news is that we have already done more to advance the cause of health care reform in the last month than we have in the last decade.  We've provided and protected health insurance for 11 million children whose parents work full-time.  We've invested in preventive care to help keep people from having to go to the doctor in the first place, and in electronic health records and new technology that will ensure privacy while saving billions of dollars and countless lives.
And today, I can announce that under the Recovery Plan we've put into action, $155 million will go toward supporting 126 new health centers across America.  These health centers will expand access to care by helping people in need -- many with no health insurance –- obtain access to comprehensive primary and preventive health care services.  That helps relieve the burden on emergency rooms across the country, which have become primary care clinics for too many who lack coverage -- often at taxpayer expense.  This action will create thousands of new jobs, help provide health care to an estimated 750,000 low-income Americans across the country, and take another important step toward affordable, accessible health care for all.
But our current economic crisis has only heightened the urgency of our health care challenge.  In the last eight years, premiums have grown four times faster than wages.  In each of these years, 1 million Americans have lost their health insurance.  The crushing cost of health care causes a bankruptcy in America every 30 seconds; and by the end of this year, it could cause 1.5 million Americans to lose their homes.  It's a crisis punishing families, battering businesses, squeezing our states, and increasingly, imperiling our own budget.  Health care is one of the fastest-growing expenses in the federal budget, and it's one we simply cannot sustain.
That is why we cannot fail to act yet again.  If we're going to help families, save businesses, and improve the long-term economic health of our nation, we must realizing [sic] that fixing what's wrong with our health care system is no longer just a moral imperative, but a fiscal imperative.  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.
Today, I'm proud to announce key members of the team I'm assembling to help do just that:  Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius for my Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Nancy-Ann DeParle as Director of the White House Office for Health Reform.
Now, there's no easy formula for fixing our health care system.  There will be many different opinions and ideas about how to achieve this reform.  And that's why I'm bringing together business and labor, doctors and insurers, Democrats and Republicans, as well as ordinary Americans from all walks of life to the White House this Thursday for a historic health care forum.
What is required, however, is a commitment to reform that focuses not on Democratic ideas or Republican ideas, but on ideas that work to rein in costs, expand access, and improve the quality of health care for the American people.
Kathleen Sebelius embodies such a commitment to bipartisan accomplishment.  She is, after all, the daughter of a Democratic governor and the daughter-in-law of a Republican congressman.
But she's forged a reputation for bipartisan problem-solving in her own right.  As governor of Kansas, she inherited a billion-dollar deficit, but by eliminating waste and inefficiency while making smart choices, she balanced the state budget without raising taxes.  And time and again, on energy and education, jobs and health care, she's bridged the partisan divide and worked with a Republican legislature to get things done for the people of Kansas.
And that's why I'm so proud that one of the most esteemed political leaders of our time, Bob Dole, is here, as well as my former colleague, Pat Roberts, here as well -- people in Kansas, we stick together.  And I've got my own Kansas roots here, so I'm particularly pleased to be joined by so many -- so many Kansans.
Now, Kathleen has all -- also knows health care inside and out.  She's won praise for her expertise from stakeholders across the spectrum, from consumer groups to insurers.  Over eight years as state insurance commissioner, she refused campaign contributions from insurance companies and protected the people of Kansas from increases to their premiums by blocking a takeover of the state's largest insurer.  She helped draft a proposed national bill of rights for patients and served as the president of the National Associate of Insurance Commissioners.
And as a governor she's been on the front lines of our health care crisis.  She has a deep knowledge of what the burden of crushing costs does to our families and businesses.  That's why she fought to guarantee Kansans access -- access to quality, affordable health care, and sought to secure it for every Kansas child from birth to age five.
Kathleen has a remarkable intellect, unquestioned integrity, and the kind of pragmatic wisdom you'll tend to find in a Kansan.  I know she will bring some much-needed grace and good humor to Washington, and she will be a tremendous asset to my Cabinet.
Now, as critical as the task of health care reform is, Governor Sebelius will also oversee a department with wide-ranging responsibilities essential to the well-being of the American people.  We rely on the Food and Drug Administration to ensure the safety of our nation's food and drug supply.  We depend on the Center for Disease Control to make certain our nation is prepared for pandemic disease outbreak or bioterrorism attacks.  We expect the National Institutes of Health to keep America at the forefront of medical research, and work toward a cure for cancer in our time.  And for as long as I am President, these agencies will be led by exceptional individuals who stand on the side of the American people; who push politics aside in favor of proven science; who eschew stale ideology for sound ideas and a focus on what works.
I'm also proud to announce that Kathleen will have an excellent partner at the White House in Nancy, one of the nation's leading experts on health care and regulatory issues.  As commissioner of the Department of Human Services in Tennessee, she saw firsthand our health care system's impact on workers and families.  In the Clinton administration, she handled budget matters for federal health care programs, and took on the tremendous task of managing Medicare and Medicaid.  I have absolute confidence in her ability to lead the public and legislative effort to ensure quality, affordable health care for every American.
Let me close by saying one last thing.  I realize that there are those who simply don't believe Washington can bring about this change.  And the odds are long.  It's failed too many times.  There are too many special interests and entrenched lobbyists invested in the status quo.
That's the conventional wisdom, and I understand those doubts.  But I also know this:  I didn't come to Washington to take the easy route, or to work for the powerful and the well-connected interests who have run this city for too long.  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.
Kathleen and Nancy share my resolve; I look forward to working with them as we begin the urgent and immediate task of ensuring quality, affordable health care for every American.  And we also know that we're going to need important partners there, so that's why I'm so proud that we have the outstanding member of the House of Representatives, Henry Waxman, and my own colleague and the head of the finance committee, Max Baucus -- they have already shown extraordinary leadership in this process.
The fact that we've got Democrats and Republicans here I hope is a symbol of how we can move this issue forward.  I don't think anybody has a silver bullet when it comes to health care.  There are some difficult tradeoffs to be made, there are some difficult choices to be made.  But what I do know is this, that people of goodwill collectively recognize that the path we're on is unsustainable.  It's going to be Kathleen's job and Nancy's job to work with extraordinary leaders, like the ones on this stage, to make sure that we finally deliver health care reform that will save our federal budget and help American families for generations to come.
Thank you very much.  (Applause.)
GOVERNOR SEBELIUS:  Well, Mr. President, thank you.  The President's request that I lead the department charged with protecting the health of all Americans, and providing essential services to some of our most vulnerable citizens, is a responsibility I could not refuse.  I'm deeply honored by your faith in me, Mr. President.
I've worked on health care issues for more than two decades -- as a legislator, as an insurance commissioner, and as governor of the great state of Kansas.  Mr. President, I share your passion and personal commitment to health care reform.
During the campaign, you talked about watching your mother spend her final days battling for her insurance benefits -- a situation all too familiar to too many Americans.
I spent time with the First Lady as she reached out to ordinary women in cities and towns across America, who came together to share their struggles and fears, and voice hope for a change in the health care system that could save families from bankruptcy and deliver quality care to all.
I share your belief that we can't fix the economy without fixing health care.  The work won't be easy, but bringing about real change rarely is.
Business and labor leaders, teachers and health care providers, policymakers at the state, local and national level, parents and children are ready to join this effort.  This isn't a partisan challenge; it's an American challenge, and one that we can't afford to ignore.
This election was a vote for change, and nowhere is that change more important than in reforming the health care system of America.
Nancy-Ann DeParle and I have worked together in the past on health care issues, and I look forward to having a great partner in the effort moving forward.
Now, the decision to leave my job in Kansas as governor of the great Sunflower State is not easy.  But you, Mr. President, reminded me it's possible to help Kansas and help the United States at the same time.  I can think of no great honor than to join you in this effort to transform our health care system and improve the lives of all Americans.
Thank you for giving me this challenge.
THE PRESIDENT:  Nancy, you want to say a little something?  Go ahead.
MS. DePARLE:  Yes.  I'll just say that I'm really honored to be asked by President Obama to be part of his team working to lower costs and provide health care insurance and better quality to all Americans, and especially excited to be working with Governor and now Secretary-designate Sebelius.  As she said, we enjoyed working together earlier in both of our careers, and I think it will be a great partnership.
So, thank you, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT:  All right.
Thank you, everybody.  We're going to go get to work. 
                            END                    1:10 P.M. EST