Over the past week, the Obama administration has continued its tireless and tenacious campaign to persuade politicians, business leaders and the American public that healthcare reform is vital to the nation’s stability and security. Citing this ambitious initiative as a “moral imperative” in his speech before a joint session of Congress last week, President Barack Obama clearly outlined planks of the $900 billion, 10-year plan, including health insurance mandates for employers and individuals; subsidies to make coverage affordable for the uninsured and poverty-stricken; and a financing proposal in which he says deficit spending would be avoided through payments by private insurers and more efficient management of government services. Moreover, he has undertaken a whirlwind schedule to sell the plan: meeting with cabinet members; holding discussions with congressional leaders; traveling to town hall sessions; and reinforcing his message with millions as part of the weekly radio/Internet address.
Although Obama asserted that “the time for bickering is over,” his speech has done little to quell the contentiousness of the healthcare debate thus far. When he maintained in his address that his plan would not provide free coverage to illegal immigrants, the statement was met by an outburst from Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina): “You lie!” (Wilson apologized for his eruption and was subsequently reprimanded by the House.) And on Saturday, tens of thousands gathered on Capitol Hill as part of the Tea Party Express rally to protest big government and programs like healthcare reform.
As this political firestorm rages, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has been charged as one of the administration officials to carry Obama’s message and marshal forces on the frontlines of healthcare reform. With oversight of 11 agencies and a budget of $879 billion, Sebelius, 61, deals with issues ranging from management of healthcare services across the country to containment of such pandemics as the H1N1 virus, better known as the “Swine Flu.” Her job has gained more urgency with the recent release of the U.S. Census Bureau’s report on income, poverty and health insurance. The survey revealed that the recession has pushed an additional 2.6 million people into poverty – the nation’s poverty rate rose from 12.5% in 2007 to 13.2% in 2008, the highest level in 11 years – and expanded the number of individuals without private health insurance from $45.7 million in 2007 to $46.3 million in 2008. In part one of a two-part interview, Sebelius talked with Black Enterprise Editor-In-Chief Derek T. Dingle about the political battle over healthcare reform.