Friends, colleagues confident in Daschle

Amy Poppinga

Amy Poppinga

An SDSU alumnus could potentially play a lead role in shaping the future of health care in America.

President-elect Barack Obama will reportedly appoint former Sen. Thomas A. Daschle, a 1969 SDSU graduate, as the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Daschle, an Aberdeen native, graduated from SDSU with a political science degree. In 1978, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served four terms before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986. During his 18-year tenure there, he served his party as both the minority and majority leader. Sen. John Thune defeated him for re-election in 2004.

If Daschle is officially nominated, many of his former colleagues in the U.S. Senate will vote on his confirmation. Bob Burns, the former head of the political science department and a friend of Daschle, expects a nearly unanimous confirmation vote.

The two met in 1972 while Burns was the Brookings County Democratic Party chair and Daschle worked for the McGovern and Abourezk campaigns. Burns said Daschle would take over a tough job if he becomes Secretary of Health and Human Services.

“It’s not a simple cabinet post,” he said. “The department he is moving into is very large and comprehensive.”

About one-fourth of all federal government spending falls under the department of Health and Human Services, which includes Medicare, Medicaid, Indian Health Service and the Food and Drug Administration. As secretary, Daschle would oversee more than 50,000 employees.

Burns said he thinks Daschle would work to serve all Americans and not just favor South Dakota. But since the state has many residents – American Indians, the elderly and the poor – that are affected by Health and Human Services, South Dakota “stands to benefit from effective leadership in that department.”

Thomas Van Norman served in the Legislature for eight years as a representative of District 28A, which includes the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock reservations. He thinks Daschle is qualified to improve health care for the state’s American Indian population.

“He understands the extreme poverty we have here and the lack of adequate health care because of inadequate funding for Indian Health Service,” Van Norman said.

“Sen. Daschle understands the state of health care. He’ll hit the ground running to get efficient service to people who need it.”

Tom Hansen, who was the 2008 chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee in the South Dakota Senate, said even though he is a Republican, he is happy for Daschle, who is a Democrat.

“As a South Dakotan, whether you are Republican or Democrat, you have to be really happy that one of our own people is in a position of that stature,” he said. “That’s about as good as it gets.”

“He’s a really good role model for students,” said Anne Schaefer, the vice president of College Democrats and a sophomore biology and Spanish major. “He’s a good example of what you can do even if you come from a small place.”

Steve Erpenbach, president and CEO of the SDSU Foundation, said Daschle would be a good addition to the Obama administration.

“I have a tremendous admiration for him as a public servant,” he said. “He has such a tremendous passion for helping people.”

Erpenbach worked for Daschle for 11 years, serving three years as his political director in Washington D.C., and eight years as his state director. During that time, Daschle hosted town hall meetings across the state. Erpenbach said hearing people’s health care concerns is where Daschle’s passion to do something about health care came from.

As a senator, he visited South Dakota’s 66 counties, stopping at hospitals and clinics along the way. Erpenbach said Daschle was exposed to the unique conditions of rural and Native American health care during these visits.

Local physician Rick Holm has read Daschle’s book Critical: What We Can Do About the Health Care Crisis and has personally discussed health care issues with the former senator.

To Holm, one of the causes of the crisis is a move from primary to specialty care. Specialty care is more expensive, and studies show it provides less quality than primary care.

“In my mind that probably is the most important key issue in any reform that comes: to realize the health care crisis is looming in particular because of the lack of emphasis on primary care, ? and I think Tom Daschle realizes that,” said Holm, who practices internal medicine at the Avera Brookings Medical Clinic and serves as the chief of staff at the Brookings Health System.

In his book, Daschle outlines several other ways to solve the health care crisis. Holm said Daschle’s plan includes: calculating the cost of insurance on an income-based sliding scale, requiring employers to enroll their employees in a company plan, strengthening Medicaid to cover everyone below the federal poverty level, making the federal health benefit program available to anyone who does not have job-based insurance and developing a federal health board.

Holm, who is also a member of the American College of Physicians National Health and Public Policy Committee, said he thinks Daschle’s ideas are good and that the former senator has the experience to get legislation passed.

“His strength is how to make it happen,” he said. “In that way, I think we have the very best person because Daschle has always been one who has known how to work Washington.”

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