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Public Statements

Executive Session

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. DURBIN. Mr. President, I rise to speak on behalf of the nomination of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Just a few moments ago at lunch, we were briefed by Secretary Napolitano and a spokesperson from the Centers for Disease Control about the swine flu epidemic. It is a serious issue, much more serious in Mexico and other places than the United States, but it is being taken very seriously and watched closely by those in charge of our public health in America. That is why it is so important for us to fill this particular spot in the President's Cabinet. It is the last spot to be filled. The nominee, the Governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius, is an extraordinarily good choice for this post of Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

We consider so many health care issues. In fact, when the people of this country are asked about the priorities they identify, their highest priority is health care, as it should be. If we do not have our health, not much else matters.

We have tried during this Congress with this new President to do that which is important to address the public health concerns of Americans. We passed a children's health bill to provide health care coverage, insurance coverage for an additional 4 million kids. We passed an economic recovery package that provides States with the resources they need to provide health care services to millions of low-income families and seniors on Medicaid. We passed a new law to help working families continue to pay for health insurance even after they lose their jobs. We also provided money in the Recovery and Reinvestment Act to fund investments in health information technology which can save the Nation billions of dollars and avoid costly and deadly medical errors. It has also provided assistance to community health centers, a resource in my home State of Illinois which is exceptional. It provides health care for those who have nowhere else to turn. It is some of the best care in America. In the Omnibus appropriations bill, we provided billions of dollars for medical research, infant and maternal health, and other health services for those least able to afford the care they need. We have a lot more to do, and that is why we need to fill this spot.

The current economic crisis has made health care reform more important. More than 47 million Americans, including 9 million American kids, do not have health insurance. Those families woke up this morning with children in their houses without the peace of mind that if there is an accident, a diagnosis, or some illness, they would have health insurance to guarantee they have quality care, good doctors and hospitals to turn to. A third of Americans under the age of 65 have experienced a period without health insurance in the past 2 years. That is one out of three Americans under the age of 65. Families and small businesses work harder than ever to provide health insurance, and the costs just keep going up.

As unemployment has reached 8.5 percent nationwide, this rate has troubled us. In some areas, it is much higher. It is 9.1 percent in Illinois. With each 1 percent rise in the Nation's unemployment rate, the number of uninsured Americans increases by 1.1 million people.

One of the biggest worries I found among unemployed workers in Illinois is health insurance. I recently visited Richland Community College in Decatur. I sat down with a number of young men and women who lost their jobs, many of them with children. That was the first thing they brought up, whether their spouse was working and had health insurance, whether there was somewhere else they could turn. A growing number of businesses are backing away from health insurance because it is expensive.

We cannot wait for the economy to improve before tackling this health care issue. Too many Americans have needs that cannot wait.

There are no easy fixes to this, but I believe President Obama is right by stepping up and nominating Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to be Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Last week, the Senate Finance Committee approved her nomination. Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to sit down with her and talk about the issues firsthand. Her commitment to this issue is not just lipservice. She has shown an ability to overcome partisan politics in her home State for her people and represent the best interests we need in America.

During her two terms as Governor, Governor Sebelius and her administration have been notably bipartisan. She was elected to her first term with a former Republican businessman as her running mate. She ran a second time with the former State Republican chairman on her ticket. In a State where the opposition party holds strong majorities in both chambers, the Democratic Governor has been able to reach across the aisle to solve problems and help the people of Kansas.

Before being elected Governor, she was Kansas insurance commissioner from 1994 to 2002. During this time, she refused campaign contributions from insurance companies. She protected the people of her State from increases in premiums by blocking the sale of Blue Cross Blue Shield to an out-of-State company. She helped draft a proposed national bill of rights for patients and served as the president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. This critical experience prepares her well in her new role on the President's Cabinet dealing with health care reform, Medicare, and Medicaid. While she has also dealt with these broader health coverage issues, she has not lost sight of the role that prevention and public health must play in any health reform effort.

Through her Healthy Kansas initiative, Governor Sebelius encouraged Kansans to increase fiscal activity, choose a healthier diet, and avoid using tobacco products. As Governor, she made investments to help women avoid unintended pregnancies, increase health services for pregnant women, and provide support services for families.

These are goals that I think most of us can certainly agree on.

We discussed the issue of food safety, which is very important, with the Food and Drug Administration under her supervision, when she is confirmed in this process, and she understands there is a parade of concerns, whether it is salmonella in peppers and peanut butter, melamine-spiked pet food and milk products from China, E. coli in spinach, and the list goes on and on. We can do better. Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack and Kathleen Sebelius, once she is confirmed, can work together to bring us the very best in food safety in America and to protect families who count on their Government to do the job.

I commend President Obama for his leadership on this issue, but with these two spots filled, with the Secretary of Health and Human Services and Agriculture, then we can step forward and get something done.

There is also a big question about this issue of comparative effectiveness, which has been raised by some on the other side in relation to this nomination. Congress and President Obama are committed to expanding America's access to high quality health care, and that is why we have made comparative effectiveness research a high priority. Through the economic recovery package, we committed over $1 billion to funding research to compare the relative clinical risks and benefits of different treatments for the same illnesses.

Some of my colleagues argue this research should only focus on clinical effectiveness, without taking into account the cost of a treatment or procedure. However, I think addressing cost is a major concern of everyone, not just in Government but of the American people. They believe health care costs are too high and they are interested in any steps we can take to reduce waste and use health care dollars more efficiently. That effort is an important part of health care reform. We can't continue to spend as much as we have on health care without breaking the bank, leaving deficits for our children and basically bankrupting the American Treasury.

Part of the solution to our health care reform is reducing unnecessary cost and waste. Research may show that there are some treatments genuinely less effective than others in comparable populations. No one should be afraid of looking at the solid factual evidence to make these comparisons. Some of my colleagues oppose comparative effectiveness research and argue that Washington bureaucrats shouldn't interfere with a patient's right to choose treatment or substitute the Government's judgment for that of a physician. I don't argue with that premise, but let's get to the bottom line. When a decision is made about an illness affecting you or a member of your family, you want the most effective treatment. You want to be certain it is going to work. You want to have confidence that the person providing it is making the right choice.

We have a right to ask whether there is a more economical choice, one that can reach the same result without the same cost; whether it is the use of generic drugs, for example, which have been proven to be effective and lower cost than many brandname drugs, or whether it is a procedure that is going to have a lot more chance of success. Why are we afraid to look at this information? Some on the other side are. They shouldn't be. This is common sense that we would ask these questions and come up with this information so we can make the right decision.

I would add that Kathleen Sebelius has proven, as the executive in a major state in America, that she understands the responsibility of leadership and the accountability of those in leadership. Few challenges we face in America are as grave as our health care system and its need for reform, but it is an effort we must undertake. Unsustainable health care costs are the one primary threat to our economic security.

The President said it: We are draining our Federal budget and placing at risk the financial well-being of America if we don't look at the real cost of health care. It is time for reform, and the first real step is to confirm Governor Kathleen Sebelius as our Nation's chief health official. Americans deserve someone they can trust to see this commitment through. She has shown this in her service in Kansas and her commitment to public life.

I hope my colleagues in the Senate will join me in supporting her nomination today. There are some who have raised a myriad of different issues that concern them; some are even beyond the reach of Kathleen Sebelius in her role as Governor. She was given Federal Court cases and Federal laws to follow, and she did as she was bound to do by her oath of office. But we should give her a chance now at the Federal level to help lead this country into a new day of health care reform.

Mr. President, I yield the floor, and I suggest the absence of a quorum.


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