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Obama sees potential for healthcare gains


By Matthew DoBias
Posted: January 20, 2009 - 12:45 pm ET
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Barack Obama, the onetime Democratic senator from Illinois who made healthcare reform a cornerstone of his race for the White House, officially took office. He was sworn in as the nation's 44th president by Chief Justice John Roberts.

In a speech that focused largely on moving away from partisan politics as a means to steer the country to a more fiscally sound path, Obama touched on healthcare reform as one way to do so.

“We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology's wonders to raise healthcare's quality and lower its costs,” he said, speaking in front of hundreds of thousands of people on the National Mall in Washington and tens of millions more who watched on television.

“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works—whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified,” Obama said. “Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.”

Hundreds of thousands of people shuffled around the two-mile swath of the mall, jockeying for a place to stand in hopes of catching the ceremony on one of the many large screens positioned around the area.

Commuters coming into the city packed trains and other modes of public transportation to navigate downtown Washington in order to glimpse the swearing-in ceremony.

Reform advocates have largely fallen in line with Obama's call for a health system overhaul, based on the use of electronic health records, new and expanded government programs and payment reform. Indeed, one of the first pieces of legislation the new president is expected to sign is a bill that renews and grows a popular federal-state children's health insurance program.

American Hospital Association Executive Vice President Richard Pollack, from the swearing-in ceremony, said the administrative goals should focus on “coverage for all and change to improve the delivery system.”

Congress is also expected to send to Obama a giant economic stimulus package, which presently holds about $100 billion in healthcare funding, the lion's share going to a boost in the federal government’s share of Medicaid but with several billion more going to help spur the adoption of health information technology.

HHS and the CMS also experienced turnover today. Mike Leavitt, whose tenure as HHS secretary officially ended at noon ET, will temporarily be replaced by HHS Assistant Secretary Charlie Johnson. CMS Chief Operating Officer Charlene Frizzera will take over for outgoing acting CMS Administrator Kerry Weems.

Meanwhile, Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was taken from an inauguration luncheon for Obama after falling ill, according to the Associated Press. Kennedy, a strong proponent of healthcare reform, has been battling a brain tumor. Kennedy was taken to Washington Hospital Center in the District, where a spokeswoman said only that he was being assessed, was awake and answering questions. She did not confirm that the senator suffered a seizure. The spokeswoman said that Kennedy is with his wife, Vicki, and his son Patrick, a congressman from Rhode Island who has been active in health information technology legislation on Capitol Hill.

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