Sebelius returns to give Landon Lecture


There is a political consensus among the various parties that the health care system is flawed. Most of the political debate is focused on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but Kathleen Sebelius addressed issues that her department is working on to ease the stress in the system.

Sebelius, the secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services and the former governor of Kansas, spoke as part of the Landon Lecture Series on Monday in McCain Auditorium. Sebelius chose to focus her speech on how to address health problems, and the positive impact solutions would have on the population.

“Health is really about freedom, when we live longer, healthier lives, we’ve got time to do our jobs, time to volunteer in our neighborhoods and play with our children, to watch our grandchildren grow up,” Sebelius said. “When the health of the nation improves we see the benefits each and every day of our lives.”

The start of the speech focused on improvements in insurance coverage due to the health care bill. The areas that Sebelius cited dealt with prescription drug coverage for seniors, a program to help companies fund insurance coverage for retirees and coverage for people with existing medical conditions.

One example Sebelius mentioned was the 19,000 seniors in Kansas who received money from the government to help pay for prescription drugs, but Sebelius said many of the changes will not take effect until 2014.

“We’re starting to fill some of the biggest gaps and end some of the worst abuses, and give more control to all the people who felt like there was nothing they could do when their premiums went up 30 percent or their claims were denied,” Sebelius said.

As well as the defense of the insurance portion of the Affordable Care Act, Sebelius also emphasized six lesser-known health issues that HHS is seeking to improve. They ranged from making medical records electronic and preventing infections in hospitals, to funding efforts to fight obesity and cancer.

Sebelius said they are looking to create effective medical countermeasures to biological, chemical and radiological hazards. These would identify the hazard and treat the people affected by the hazards. The measures include vaccines, drugs and diagnostics.

“The problem right now is that there’s little incentive for the big drug companies — for the pharmaceutical companies — to produce medical countermeasures for conditions like the ebola virus or exposure to non-medical radiation, even though in the event of an outbreak or nuclear explosion those countermeasures are absolutely critical,” Sebelius said.

She said President Obama mandated a federal review of the production of medical countermeasures. Several suggested solutions to the shortfalls found by the review include starting a venture capital firm that would fund companies trying to come up with new drugs, as well as a simplified regulatory process for these companies.

Cancer was another major health problem Sebelius addressed, and she said it is a disease that 50 percent of American males and 33 percent of American females will have.

“For years the main approach to treating cancer was similar, as the scientists tell me, to carpet bombing,” Sebelius said. “Where you attack with radiation and chemotherapy to kill all the dangerous cancer cells, but you also kill a lot of good cells, on balance killing more good cells than bad.”

New targeted drugs are being developed to address cancer, and Sebelius said HHS is working to speed up the process. Sebelius said the department is creating a database of DNA changes that are caused by 20 different major cancer types, so the focus of cancer drugs can be narrowed to specific forms of cancer.

Another process the department is looking to speed up is the adoption of a new sanitary checklist.

Infections in hospitals are one of the top 10 causes of death for Americans, and Sebelius said emphasis on a checklist of sanitary guidelines in a group of Michigan hospitals decreased infection rates 66 percent and decreased costs by $200 million dollars. Sebelius quoted a study that estimated adoption of new medical innovations takes approximately 17 years, but they hope to shorten that time span.

Chris Connell, senior in animal science business, said his favorite point was when Sebelius talked about how hospitals should adopt electronic medical records.

“They definitely need to do that across the nation,” Connell said. “Think how quickly you could access somebody’s files if you needed it from hospital to hospital, and how much information technology could improve hospital’s in that way. I think that was pretty cool.”

Sebelius emphasized how electronic records could help prevent accidents where people with medical problems are given the wrong medication or treatment because doctors would have easy access to the patient’s medical history.

Obesity was also a major health problem Sebelius spoke of, and she mentioned how obesity can lead to other health issues like heart disease and diabetes.

“This isn’t a fashion crisis, it is a very serious health crisis,” Sebelius said.

The Affordable Care Act will have chain restaurants display the calorie content of each dish on their menus, and Sebelius said the department is trying to get grocery stores and food manufacturers to place health labels on the front of packages.

“The truth is most folks really want to eat healthier diets, maybe not in Aggieville at 3 a.m., but most of the time,” Sebelius said. “The challenge is to make a healthy choice more convenient, more affordable and more easily accessible.”

To wrap up the first Landon Lecture of the year, Sebelius briefly discussed food safety in the United States. She said changes needed to be made to the system, but instead of mentioning specific initiatives, she talked about the economic impact that food related disease outbreaks had on farmers.

Ariel Sinha, junior in public relations, said she enjoyed the broad topic areas that Sebelius covered.

“I’m a big fan of Kathleen Sebelius,” Sinha said. “I’m so happy to see her as one of the president’s Cabinet members and I think she spoke to some really good points that don’t get a lot of media coverage.”