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Sebelius to lead HHS; DeParle named health-reform czar

President Obama made it official today: Democratic Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is his pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Sebelius, 60, has been governor since 2002. For eight years prior to that, she served as her state's insurance commissioner, winning kudos for blocking an insurance company merger that she said would have raised health premiums for consumers.

"Kathleen Sebelius has a remarkable intellect, unquestioned integrity, and the kind of pragmatic wisdom you’ll tend to find in a Kansan," Obama said in announcing the appointment. "I know she will bring some much-needed grace and good humor to Washington, and she will be a tremendous asset to my cabinet."

As a Roman Catholic, Sebelius has come under fire from the church and anti-abortion groups for twice vetoing state legislation that would have restricted women's access to late-term abortions. She tried but failed to ban smoking inside bars, restaurants, workplaces and public buildings, and to raise tobacco taxes in her state to pay to expand Medicaid for Kansans. “Both her proposals and her accomplishments have been limited to some extent by the political realities of the state that she governs,” Robert St. Peter, president of the research foundation the Kansas Health Institute, tells the New York Times, noting that the state house and senate are controlled by Republicans.

Obama today also named Nancy Ann DeParle, 52, as director of the new White House Office for Health Reform. The slot is akin to that of a health czar tasked with coordinating all government efforts to revamp the healthcare system.

DeParle was commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Human Services from 1987 to 1989. From 1997 to 2000, she served as administrator of the former Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA), which is now known as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). The agency provides health coverage to the elderly and economically disadvantaged, as well as to low-income kids who are given coverage through the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). She's married to Jason DeParle, a welfare-policy reporter for the New York Times.

Obama initially tapped former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle for both posts, but the South Dakota Democrat withdrew from consideration amid criticism for failing to pay more than $120,000 in taxes after leaving the Senate to become a lobbyist.

Image of Kathleen Sebelius/Governor's Office of Constituent Services via Wikimedia Commons

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