Health care advocates on Tuesday, February 3, publicly said that the reform movement would push ahead this year and next, but privately, however, mourned the loss of former Sen. Tom Daschle, who had been so closely linked to the industry that many had already begun to call him Mr. Secretary.
In interviews conducted Tuesday, advocacy and labor groups including AARP and the Service Employees International Union—two members of Divided We Fail—said momentum for reform has been building so long that it would continue to go forward regardless of Daschle’s presence.
“Sen. Daschle’s withdrawal is a loss,” Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president, said in a written statement. “We’ve known for years that health reform would be difficult, yet necessary. [Daschle’s] withdrawal could make the process harder, but it doesn’t change the urgency of reform.”
On Tuesday, Daschle withdrew his nomination for the nation’s top health care post, sidestepping what would have been a contentious confirmation hearing next week and ending what he called a “distraction” to the new administration. He also said he would not lead other White House reform initiatives.
“To be chosen by President Barack Obama to run the Department of Health and Human Services and to lead the reform of America’s health care system is one of the signal honors of an improbable career,” Daschle said in a written statement. “But if 30 years of exposure to the challenges inherent in our system has taught me anything, it has taught me that this work will require a leader who can operate with the full faith of Congress and the American people, and without distraction. Right now, I am not that leader and will not be a distraction.”
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs lauded Daschle regarding his almost three decades in service, adding that the decision to step down was the senator’s alone. Gibbs said Daschle felt that the confirmation process would ultimately “distract from the important goals and critical agenda that the president has put forward.”
As news spread of Daschle’s announcement, lawmakers reacted with shock.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Montana, who Monday night vocally backed Daschle for the HHS post after a meeting with the former Senate majority leader, said he was surprised by the move. “It was not my sense [Monday] night [that he would withdraw],” Baucus told reporters. “I just think some of the news reports and some of the editorials were a little stronger than he and perhaps some others anticipated.”
The decision to remove his name from consideration caps a frantic five-day run in which Daschle continuously found himself having to defend himself for missing about $140,000 in back taxes and interest from a consulting job and car services.
Daschle apologized to senators late Sunday and then again Monday evening, admitting that he had made mistakes. “I would hope that my mistake could be viewed in the context of 30 years of public service,” he said Monday evening after meeting with the Finance Committee.
But many Senate Republicans were left unswayed. Before news of Daschle’s withdrawal had spread, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said he would vote no on the confirmation. “I think that if Sen. Daschle cares about President’s Obama’s success and the success of this new administration, then he ought to remove this distraction.”
Daschle’s decision leaves a major gap in what the administration named as a top priority—large-scale health care reform. But it also touched off rounds of speculation by industry leaders on who might fill that spot.
One oft-mentioned name, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, surfaced early on during Obama’s campaign as a possible vice president pick. Late Tuesday, Sebelius’ office issued a statement saying that the governor “is focused on working through the challenges facing our state and continues to believe reforming healthcare is absolutely vital to our economic recovery.”
The statement goes on: “She will continue to do what she can to help President Obama fix our economy, improve our healthcare system and get America back on track.”
Democratic senators were mixed on what the decision meant for broader health reform efforts, many of them already under way at the committee level.
“If anything, this even adds more urgency for us to keep momentum, and President Obama is totally committed to health reform,” Baucus said.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, however, was less certain. “There are very few people who could step into the role that he was going to play,” he said. “It really sets us back a step because he was such a talent. He’ll be a hard person to replace.”
(For more, read "Federal Study Concludes Health Insurance Reform Could Create Workforce Instability.")
Filed by Matthew DoBias of Modern Healthcare, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.