April 21, 2009 / 3:52 PM / 10 years ago

U.S. Senate panel backs Sebelius health nomination

* Senate Finance Committee approves Sebelius

President Barack Obama introduces Health and Human services Secretary nominee Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius in the East Room at the White House in Washington, March 2, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young

* Full Senate confirmation expected

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate committee on Tuesday voted to confirm the nomination of Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius as health secretary, the leader of President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform effort and one of the last pivotal spots in his cabinet that has not been filled.

The Finance Committee panel voted 15-8, mostly along party lines, to back her nomination, which will now go the full Senate for approval.

Sebelius, a former insurance commissioner, will lead Obama’s push to enact by the end of this year an overhaul of the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare industry, one of the main political goals of his young administration.

Only two Republicans on the panel backed Sebelius. Her support for abortion rights has angered many conservatives and Republican Senator Jon Kyl said he opposed her positions on using research to compare the effectiveness of various treatments, drugs and medical devices.

As Obama’s health and human services secretary, Sebelius will be charged with pushing through Congress proposals to expand health insurance coverage to an estimated 46 million Americans now going without it and to lower costs while making sure that even the sickest have access to affordable insurance.

How to get there will test the political skills of Sebelius, a rising star in the Democratic Party. Previous efforts, notably under former President Bill Clinton, failed, but many analysts believe there is more general support for change now than in the Clinton years.

Soaring medical care costs, rising unemployment and the ranks of the uninsured are putting pressure on lawmakers to act and bringing interested parties to the negotiating table.

The biggest question facing lawmakers as they begin crafting far-reaching legislation to revamp the system is whether a government-run plan will be part of the mix of insurance options available.

Democrats want a public plan but insurers and Republicans oppose the idea, arguing that private companies would be unable to compete with a government-run plan.

Sebelius told the Senate Finance Committee at her nomination hearing this month that she supports having a public plan and said it could be designed in a way that does not compete unfairly with private companies.

“Americans looking for coverage should have some choices,” Sebelius said. She noted that a number of states have public plans for their employees that compete with private insurers without driving them out of business.

Reporting by Donna Smith, editing by Patricia Zengerle

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