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Health Overhaul May Slow Without Daschle

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

With Tom Daschle out of the picture, President Obama must begin a new search for the right person to lead the White House Office of Health Reform. NPR's Julie Rovner looks at what's next for health care.

JULIE ROVNER: Obama administration officials tried to stress, yesterday, that its health reform efforts are bigger than any one person, even if that one person was one of the few in America with credibility among both members of congress and health care experts. Here's how senior adviser David Axelrod put it, after being asked about Daschle's abrupt departure.

MONTAGNE: He will be missed, but the issue is as important today to our economic recovery and the families and businesses across the country as it was yesterday. And we will move forward and someone else will have to carry the flag and lead that effort. And I'm sure we'll find a strong replacement.

ROVNER: But that won't be easy. Former Republican Senator Dave Durenberger, a veteran of three decades of health overhaul efforts said Obama and Daschle were a match made in health care heaven.

MONTAGNE: Everybody's anticipation of putting President Obama and his gifts for rhetoric and being able to set us up with a vision we could all be part of, and put that together with Tom's experience and his skills and the work that he's done just in the last few years, it would've been almost one of those once in a political lifetime opportunities. And, you know, put me down for just seriously disappointed.

ROVNER: Daschle's departure, despite administration claims to the contrary, could also stop health overhaul efforts in their tracks, says health industry consultant Bob Laszewski.

MONTAGNE: This is going to delay health care reform many months. The White House has lost its health care momentum. Tom Daschle was, in many ways, the perfect choice for Health and Human Services Secretary.

ROVNER: And that's a frustration to those on Capitol Hill, who've been laying the groundwork for a new health reform effort since the middle of last year. Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Dodd said he'd hoped that health care would be on the agenda early.

S: When you're consuming 17 percent of your GDP on health care and likelihood to go to 20 percent, how do you talk about a long-term economic recovery plan and not include health care, is very difficult to calculate. But if you don't have a secretary of HHS, it hurts; it slows things down. So, this has been a setback.

ROVNER: So, now comes the question of who and how many people will take Daschle's place. Daschle was going to be unique in holding both the secretary's job and a White House health post. Laszewski and many others says the administration may well have to find two different people for the two jobs.

MONTAGNE: You can nominate just about anybody for Health and Human Services Secretary, as long as you can come up with the czar in the White House. The way the Clintons did it is they had Shalala running the department and then they had the political and health care reform act going on in the White House under Mrs. Clinton's direct authority.

ROVNER: He's referring to former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, who's now president of the University of Miami. Her name has cropped up as a possible Daschle replacement. Ron Pollack, of the health advocacy group Families USA, offered another possibility: Kansas Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius.

MONTAGNE: So, I think she is one illustration of the kinds of good choices that could be made to get this back on track.

ROVNER: Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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