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The New Health Czar

Kay Steiger

President-Elect Obama's choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, will be responsible for implementing any health care reform Obama or the new Congress is able to pass. Will women's health be on his agenda?

Most weren’t surprised when rumors were confirmed that former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle had accepted the offer to be President-Elect Obama’s Health and Human Services
and likely also the Health Czar in the White House. After
all, Daschle has spent the last year and a half at the Center for American
Progress (full disclosure, I am also an employee there) proposing concrete
solutions to the health care crisis, including proposing a Federal Health Board–an independent health board similar
to the Federal Reserve that is situated as a fast-acting and independent body that oversees decisions about health care.  He
even released a book called Critical: What We Can Do About the Health
Care Crisis
earlier this year.  

But underneath the praise from
leaders in the health care reform movement were some dissenters, some for reasons that Amie Newman already outlined
on this site
. Daschle,
when he was in the Senate, represented the very conservative state of
South Dakota–the state that twice proposed an outright ban on abortion that
was narrowly defeated–and has been a lifelong Catholic. Some worry
that these factors may make him willing to compromise on women’s
health in health care reform.  

Gloria Feldt, president and
CEO of Planned Parenthood from 1994-2005, was less than excited to hear
the news of Daschle’s appointment. "Tom Daschle’s strengths are
that he is well-connected in Washington, he is well-connected in the
health care industry, although some may say that there are conflicts
there, he fully understands and knows the congressional process of making
legislation, of policy creation, and he I think enjoys a great deal
of respect from members of Congress. That said, many of those very strengths
are his weaknesses as well," Feldt said. She notes that Dashle wasn’t
particularly known for a strong leadership style, but came to the debate
as a compromiser, especially following the Democrats’ electoral defeat
of 2000. 

In particular Feldt pointed
to meetings she had with Daschle in the early days of the Bush administration
about anti-choice judicial nominees. "Tom Daschle’s response was to
essentially roll over and play dead," she said. "His first answer
was, ‘These guys are going to get confirmed anyway. Why are you
asking us to fight?’" Feldt noted that Daschle saw fighting against
atrocious judicial nominees something he would do only after grassroots
activists organized to oppose them, without any leadership from the
Senate first. Eventually women’s groups and other activists successfully opposed the appointment of some of the most egregious nominated justices
such as Charles

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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Although Daschle has earned respect for his policy papers on health care reform, there
still remain a lot of questions about his ties to the insurance industry
as well. In addition to his role at CAP, Daschle is a special policy
advisor at the business law firm Alston + Bird, a firm that counts a
number of heath
insurance companies as clients
Allegiance Healthcare Corporation, Emory University and Emory Healthcare,
The Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority, HealthSouth Corporation, and the
NDCHealth Corporation, among many others. Past clients aren’t always
indicative of future favors, but activists like Feldt are worried about
Daschle’s connections to corporate interests when it comes to health

But while activists like
Feldt are concerned about Dachle’s appointment, others are more optimistic.
"We’re thrilled," said Judy Waxman, director of the National
Women’s Law Center, an organization that advocates for women’s interests
and health in the heath care debate. "We’re aware of [Daschle’s]
views from his book. He’s obviously a strong leader." 

Other groups, like Physicians
for Reproductive Heath and Choice, anticipate the end of politicization
of women’s rights on the national level. "Tom Daschle’s appointment … will allow him to halt
the dangerous trend of HHS playing politics with women’s healthcare,"
said Dr. Suzanne Poppema, board chair.

"I am confident that …
Daschle will carry out President-elect Obama’s commitment to reducing
unintended pregnancy through common-sense, common-ground solutions such
as family planning," said Mary Jane Gallagher, president and CEO of
the National Family Planning and reproductive health organization.

The National Women’s Law Center’s Waxman is optimistic that unlike when President Clinton proposed a plan for health care reform in 1994, this time, Congress, the White House, and the agencies will have open channels of communication. With Daschle taking both the role of HHS secretary and heath czar in
the White House, as well as with his previous ties to Congress, there’s
sure to be a heightened level of coordination. 

Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus recently proposed a white paper outlining what health care reform might look like. The plan,
as Ezra Klein noted, is very similar to the plans we saw
the Democratic candidates propose during the primaries. The similarities
shouldn’t be surprising at all, Waxman said. 

"One of the reasons that
at least some people fought for the failure of the Clinton plan is that
it was new on the scene. It was something that had been floating around
and didn’t have enough time to germinate," Waxman said. "We’ve
now had 16 years which is enough time for various groups to get their
perspective on this. Everybody hated it because they hadn’t really
seen it." 

Most reproductive health and
rights groups, as well as policy wonks, that have been arguing over health
reforms for more than a decade are excited to see a new
face on HHS that isn’t Michael Levitt. Although there are a few that
may anticipate Daschle’s background may prompt him into more compromises
than is necessary, there’s also a good reason to believe that with
a former legislator on the face of the reforms, health care reform may finally move from hope to reality.