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Daschle to take point on health overhaul plan


WASHINGTON —The standard bearer for President-Elect Barack Obama’s ambitious plan to reform the beleaguered U.S. healthcare system will be a soft-spoken consensus-builder, who once held one of the most powerful posts in Congress.

Obama’s choice for secretary of Health and Human Services, former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, may prove an astute choice to champion the newly elected president’s health reform package. A 26-year veteran of Congress, Daschle was an early supporter of Obama who urged him to run for president and helped line up support in Congress for the freshman senator from Illinois, reportedly damaging a long-term relationship with both Bill and Hillary Clinton in the process.

Daschle, who represented South Dakota, has served as a policy adviser for a well-connected Washington law firm since he was voted out of office in 2004. But he has firm opinions about fixing the healthcare system, even publishing a book early this year titled, “Critical: What We Can Do About the Health Care Crisis.”

In that tome, Daschle argued for the creation of an independent federal health board, along the lines of the Federal Reserve Board, to craft policy and set a unified standard of care, free of politics. He’s also a vocal proponent of the rapid conversion to health information technology and health coverage for the nation’s uninsured.

Among those who have praised Daschle’s ideas is the president-elect himself. “The American healthcare system is in crisis, and workable solutions have been blocked for years by deeply entrenched ideological divisions,” Obama wrote earlier this year. “Sen. Daschle brings fresh thinking to this problem, and his Federal Reserve for Health concept holds great promise for bridging this intellectual chasm and, at long last, giving this nation the health care it deserves.”

As of press time, Daschle had reportedly accepted the post of HHS secretary, but other posts within the Department of Health and Human Services, including Obama’s picks to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Food and Drug Administration, were yet to be announced. Some pharmaceutical industry groups were urging the president-elect to tap Janet Woodcock, a longtime FDA official now in charge of the agency’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, for the post, saying she would hit the ground running and follow through on efforts at the FDA to modernize and speed up its drug review and approval practices.

The selection of Daschle drew praise from independent pharmacy leaders stung by what they perceive as an era of neglect under Bush. “The National Community Pharmacists Association would like to congratulate Tom Daschle on being selected to be secretary of HHS in the Obama-Biden administration next year,” said NCPA executive vice president and chief executive officer Bruce Roberts. “During his time in the Senate, Daschle embraced commonsense policies that allowed our more than 23,000 members to operate on a level playing field in providing patients with their healthcare needs.”

As the top health official in the land, Daschle inherits a weighty task: to take point on his boss’s plan to overhaul the massive U.S. healthcare system and expand coverage to more Americans.

That has been a long-stated goal of Obama, and it has gained new urgency amid a crisis in health care and the economy. Also spurring calls for reform has been Sen. Edward Kennedy, who returned to Capitol Hill last month during a lull in his treatment for brain cancer to unveil an ambitious plan to push legislation in 2009 to extend universal health coverage.

Among other influential Democratic lawmakers advancing health reform plans in recent weeks are Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus of Montana (see story, page 29).

Knowing that no major healthcare reform plan can succeed without the support of both parties, Obama has made a point of reaching out to Republican leaders in the House and Senate to help craft policy.

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