WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s nominee to oversee U.S. healthcare said on Thursday every American should have health insurance but stopped short of backing industry demands that everyone be required to obtain coverage.
Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, Obama’s choice for health and human services secretary, told senators insuring every American was one goal in the overhaul of the $2.5 trillion healthcare system the president wants enacted by the end of the year.
“There may be variations on how best to reach the goal,” she told the Senate Finance Committee.
As health secretary, Sebelius would be charged with guiding Obama’s plan to expand coverage to an estimated 46 million uninsured Americans -- about 15 percent of the population -- while lowering costs and making sure that even the sickest have access to affordable insurance.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Obama supported an insurance requirement, known as a mandate, for children but not for adults. Sebelius said Obama would consider all ideas as the proposed reform moves forward.
Sebelius appeared headed for Senate confirmation despite efforts by some conservative groups to derail her nomination because of her support for abortion rights.
CONFIRMATION MAY BE DELAYED BY SENATE BREAK
Committee Chairman Max Baucus said he hoped to get his committee and the full Senate to vote on her nomination before Congress leaves for a two-week break.
But a Senate Republican aide said time was tight and her confirmation might have wait until after the break. The committee was awaiting answers to dozens of questions submitted to Sebelius in writing. The Senate was pushing to complete its work on the budget late on Thursday and was expected to go out of session after that.
Baucus said her background as Kansas governor and a former insurance commissioner gave a big boost to efforts to enact legislation this year.
“Comprehensive health reform is my number one priority this year,” said Baucus. “With Governor Sebelius at the helm of the Department of Health and Human Services, I am even more confident we will achieve that goal.”
Previous efforts to reform American healthcare have failed, but labor, consumer, health industry and business groups now all agree the system is too expensive and leaves too many people without coverage.
Sebelius has proven a capable political operator on Capitol Hill and she appears to have overcome a tax issue, which sank Obama’s first nominee for health chief, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
Neither the tax problem, which saw Sebelius pay nearly $8,000 in back taxes, nor her position on abortion was raised at Thursday’s hearing.
While support for reform is broad, each group has its own agenda and details of legislation have yet to be worked out.
Lawmakers are likely to require everyone to obtain health insurance -- part of a proposed deal with insurance companies which would, in turn, end their practice of charging more for the sick and excluding pre-existing conditions from coverage.
The biggest question is whether a government-run plan will be part of the mix of insurance options available to people. Democrats want a public plan but insurers and Republicans oppose the idea, arguing private companies would be unable to compete with a public plan.
Sebelius said she supported having a public plan and said it could be designed in a way that did not compete unfairly with private companies.
“Americans looking for coverage should have some choices,” Sebelius said.
She said a number of states had public plans for their employees that compete with private insurers without driving them out of business.
Editing by Peter Cooney
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.