HHS secretary Secretary Kathleen Sebelius

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HHS secretary de-bunks some of the myths that still surround the landmark bill.

As Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius helms one of the federal government's largest civilian departments and spearheads implementation of the new healthcare reform law. She was previously a two-term governor of Kansas and named by Time as one of the top five governors in the U.S. From a political family, she's the first daughter of a governor to serve in the same position. Sebelius also previously served as a state legislator and was Kansas' first Democrat to be elected as insurance commissioner.


Tavis: Tonight, though, we begin our week with Kathleen Sebelius, former governor of Kansas, who now of course serves as President Obama’s secretary of Health and Human Services. As I mentioned at the top, this week marks six months, believe it or not, since the passage of healthcare reform, and she joins us tonight from Washington. Madame Secretary, good to have you back on this program.
Secretary Kathleen Sebelius: Thanks, Tavis, good to be with you.
Tavis: Let me start by asking whether or not it was worth it. “It,” of course, refers to the fight that you had to endure, the administration had to go through, to get this passed. I asked whether or not it was worth it, given that the polls still indicate that most Americans either don’t understand what we have done or are in disagreement with what they have done, and the critics tend to call it “Obamacare.” So first of all, was it worth it, the fight?
Sebelius: Well, I think it was absolutely worth it. As you know, Tavis, presidents since Harry Truman, including Richard Nixon, tried to push forward some kind of reform of healthcare and health insurance, and this president finally got it done, signed it into law on March 23rd.
As you say, this week marks the six-month anniversary and the best news is some of the worst insurance practices come to an end this week. So Americans are going to start to see some real benefits. Those who have insurance will have some protection around that insurance coverage.
Tavis: Tell me more about that point.
Sebelius: Well, insurers will no longer be able to eliminate children with preexisting health conditions from insurance policies, or eliminate the treatment they need. So millions of parents will have some peace of mind that they can take care of their families, take care of their sick kids.
Insurance companies can’t any longer put a cap on a lifetime benefit. I was with a woman earlier today, Tavis, from Baltimore who is about to reach her cap, and she’s in the middle of a cancer treatment. This would be life and death for her.
She’s too young for Medicare but she desperately needs the coverage that she’s paid for and now won’t have to worry that her coverage will run out in the midst of her treatment. Companies will be forbidden by law from rescinding policies – going back and finding some technical error and actually kicking people out when they need the coverage the most, when they are sick.
We’ll begin to see new policies with preventive healthcare, with benefits that won’t have a co-pay or co-insurance. So we can really encourage parents to get their kids immunized, get cancer screenings, make sure that they take care of themselves and find problems before they can become to acute.
Tavis: Is it your sense, given these numbers I referenced a moment ago, the same numbers, of course, I’m sure you see all the time, is it your sense that once the American people start to see these provisions, these important measures kick in, that these numbers are going to shift on what they think about healthcare reform?
Sebelius: Well, we’re already seeing that. I’ve been traveling around the country, I’ve been in about 25 states so far, and Tavis, understandably, what people want to know is how does this affect me and my family? What’s going to happen to us?
Once they talk about the fact that they had a college graduate, and I remind them that this year that young adult can stay on a family plan, doesn’t have to go shop for insurance in the private market, parents are thrilled. When I talk to parents about the fact that their sick children for the first time will have the peace of mind of having health coverage, that they can’t be locked out of the insurance market, they are very pleased.
And when seniors realize they get help with their prescription drug costs and next year there’ll be a 50 percent decrease in those drugs that they pay for in the so-called “doughnut hole,” that gap between drug coverage, people are not only pleased with the bill but understand that a lot of what they’ve heard, it just is not accurate.
Tavis: I saw a story today, a major story in “The Wall Street Journal,” and for that matter, a number of other publications today are carrying stories that the Republican party has as priority number one, should they take back the House and / or the Senate in November, as priority number one, repealing this healthcare reform or at least the measures of it that they can repeal.
Let me start by asking whether or not that is possible. Is it possible, first, to repeal what’s already been done, and then we’ll talk more about the politics of it.
Sebelius: Well, anything is possible in a legislative body, but I think what becomes very real is basically taking back some of these important consumer protections, taking them away from their constituents.
So when people ask me about what John Boehner would do if he were in charge of the House, I say, “John Boehner doesn’t need to have a conversation with me about what he would do if the Republicans indeed take over the House, and if indeed he would become the Speaker.
He needs to have a conversation with his constituents in Ohio, with those seniors who are looking forward to preventive care without co-pays, looking forward to a yearly Medicare check-up. In fact, one of the things that would go the fastest is we’ve been given some new resources, Tavis, to really crack down on Medicare fraud, to go after the bad guys who are stealing out of the system, to create new data systems and worth closely with the attorney general.
He and I have been in several places in the country and continue to go around. If those resources are gone, that’s one of the first programs to go. I don’t think the taxpayers would find that to be a very good idea. We’ve already returned $2.5 billion to the Medicare trust fund. We think a lot more can be found and we can prevent and then prosecute these criminals, but those resources have to be available for that effort to go on.
Tavis: Since you raised the name of John Boehner, I’ll let you talk now about the politics, because it seems to me – and I want you to disabuse me of this notion if you can – but it seems to me that we’re just weeks away, if the polls are correct; Republicans may take over again the House and / or the Senate. If that happens, they will take over with these poll numbers still indicating that most Americans are not in agreement with what happened vis-à-vis healthcare reform.
Why, then, would they not take those numbers, make their case that most Americans don’t agree with what’s happened on healthcare, and then start the cry and start the effort to repeal those measures? The argument would be, of course, that the American people have told us in poll after study after survey that they don’t agree with this.
You see where I’m going with this, so why would that not be the strategy they would employ based upon these numbers?
Sebelius: Well, I think unfortunately a lot of the American people are still confused about what’s in the bill and what’s not in the bill. There was about 18 months of intentional misinformation put out day-in and day-out, and driven with a couple hundred million dollars of television ads, and people who like the current system just the way it is.
I think once the Republicans start to talk about what is their alternative, how do they lower costs – everybody admits that this bill lowers the deficit by about $100 billion the first 10 years, and then by $1 trillion the second 10 years. What alternative do they have to make sure healthcare costs go down?
How do they replace – are we just going to turn the power back to the insurance companies, let them pick and choose? Are we going to do anything about the now 50 million Americans who have no health coverage at all?
Those numbers are just stunning, and because of the economic downturn we’ve got more Americans ever in the history of this country who have been without health insurance. What are we going to do about the health disparities – the big gaps where people who have good coverage get the care and treatment they need; people who don’t are still coming through doors of emergency room, wrong care at the wrong time, very expensive treatment, and lifespans that are considerably shorter?
So let’s talk about what this means, to actually roll back the progress that we’ve started.
Tavis: You’ve mentioned the insurance companies, understandably, a few times in this conversation. I remember this very, very vividly, the week that this deal was announced – that is to say, the deal that healthcare was, in fact, going to get through.
The week this deal was announced, the stock of the insurance companies went up in this country to, like, a 52-year high. I always come back to this point, Madame Secretary, because it suggests to me that they must know something that we don’t know, whatever the talking points are, about how we stuck it to the insurance companies.
They don’t see it that way and their shareholders don’t see it that way if their stock went up. So is this really healthcare reform?
Sebelius: Well, I think it is healthcare reform, but as the president promised it’s healthcare reform built in the private market. You know as well as I do, Tavis, that there were lots of folks who said, “Let’s get rid of the private insurance companies altogether. Let’s go to a government-paid system where everybody gets their insurance through the government, much like Medicare.”
The president said no, too many people, 180 million Americans, have coverage that they like pretty well, that is good for them and their families. We’re not going to dismantle that in order to build a new system. What we’re going to do is stabilize that private market and then build on it.
So in fact, the insurance companies are looking at the possibility of millions of new customers in 2014, when the market opens up, of having the opportunity to have more affordable care options under a lot of Americans.
The trade-off for that is we’re getting rid of some of the ways that they used to dump people and lock people out and price people out of the market. We’re getting rid of the rules that allow them to pick and choose – we’ll cover you if you’re healthy, but we’re not going to cover you when you’re sick – and we’re going to make sure that there’s some real oversight, that there’s some real regulation, that they have to spend 80 cents on every dollar on healthcare and not CEO salaries and advertising and overhead.
So there’s a balance in the bill moving forward. It doesn’t just give all the power back to the insurance companies.
Tavis: Let me close on this note, because again, we know that this week, of course, marks the six-month anniversary since this historic legislation was, in fact, passed, and yet to your earlier point there’s still misinformation out there.
Sebelius: You bet.
Tavis: I still hear this “death panel” talk, I still hear “government taking over insurance.” So finally, very quickly, what to you is that bit of misinformation most principally that you want to try to back down here once again?
Sebelius: Well, I would really urge the viewers to go to the new website, go to Healthcare.gov. For the first time ever in the history of the country, it pulls together information about what’s available in the public market for you and your family, what is available in the private market, what plans are being sold in your ZIP code for your age group.
In October, we’ll have some pricing information, and then there’s a good timeline of what the bill will do, what are the consumer benefits that are in place this week, like keeping your adult children on your family plan, no more limitations on kids with preexisting conditions, no more rescissions, can’t cut off treatment in the middle of a treatment regime.
You won’t reach a lifetime cap, preventive services beginning to offer free-of-charge without co-pays and without co-insurance. Those are all outlined on Healthcare.gov.
I think once people understand what the bill does, that this is a new day, there is some power back in the hands of consumers, and we’re tilting the balance toward consumers and their doctors and away from the insurance companies for the first time in the history of this country, they’re going to be more enthusiastic about the law.
Tavis: Secretary Sebelius, always good to have you on the program. Thanks for sharing your insight.
Sebelius: Thanks. Good to visit with you.
Tavis: My pleasure.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm