WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle pledged on Thursday to aggressively pursue healthcare reform and restore confidence in federal health agencies as he made his case to become President-elect Barack Obama’s health secretary.
Obama has charged Daschle with a new, expanded role as secretary of the Health and Human Services Department: to head the incoming administration’s effort to retool the nearly $2.3 trillion U.S. health care system. The United States spends more per person than any other developed nation, but leaves many people without adequate care.
Daschle said he would promote reforms that are “aggressive, open and responsive to American concerns.” The former senator from South Dakota also promised Republicans, who lost seats in the November election, that they would have input into the overhaul along with the public and majority Democrats.
“I really want to work in a collaborative way,” Daschle said in testimony to the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee. “It’s the only way are we going to get this done.”
Daschle said the health care system should focus on keeping people well instead of just treating illnesses.
“I think partly it’s marketing,” he said. “Wellness has to be cool. And prevention has to be a hot thing. And we’ve got to make prevention hot and wellness cool.”
“We have serious cost problems now, but every expert says that if we fail to address the issue of costs, that the situation will double just in the next 10 years alone,” he said.
Daschle’s appearance before the committee was friendly, but the panel does not vote on the nomination — that is done by the Finance Committee, which has not yet scheduled a hearing. Members of the Health, Education and Labor Committee said they thought Daschle would easily win confirmation.
About 46 million Americans lack health insurance. Employers say the soaring cost of covering workers makes it hard for them to compete in a global economy.
Obama said in an economic address on Thursday that he was committed to ensuring all U.S. medical records are computerized within five years, a move he said would “cut waste, eliminate red tape and reduce the need to repeat expensive medical tests.”
In the past he has talked about spending $50 billion over five years to implement the system.
Daschle said regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which senators said regulates one out of every four products consumed by Americans, had become politicized and vowed they would make decisions based on science not politics under his leadership.
He expressed concern that the FDA lost the confidence of the public and Congress.
“I want to reinstate a science-driven environment,” Daschle said. “I want to take ideology and politics as much as humanly possible out of the process and leave the scientists to do their job.”
The FDA has been battered by criticism that it did too little to prevent and then investigate outbreaks of foodborne disease such as a Salmonella outbreak that sickened 1,400 people from April to August of 2007.
It has also lost confidence after several high-profile drug recalls, including that of Merck & Co’s arthritis drug Vioxx in 2004 when it was found to raise heart risks.
The administration of President George W. Bush has been accused of putting ideology before science in regulating areas such as stem cells, birth control and abortion.
Daschle said this slant has affected the National Institutes of Health as well. “It has also suffered from some instances of people putting politics before science,” he said.
He said the NIH had been “flat-funded,” meaning funding has not kept pace with inflation. He said this had translated into a 17 percent decrease in “buying power” since 2003.
Editing by David Wiessler