Kansas Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius is said to be President Obama’s top choice to be the new Secretary of Health and Human Services. What will Gov. Sebelius bring to the table if she is indeed nominated and confirmed? A former close colleague of Sebelius, Terri Vaughan, highlights the value of the Governor’s experience as her state’s insurance commissioner. Vaughan, the new CEO of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, wrote the following in response to a request by the Health Affairs Blog for her take on Sebelius:

An insurance commissioner is a great choice for Secretary of HHS, because his or her direct contact with consumers provides unique insight into the challenges faced not only by consumers, but by states regarding health insurance issues. Health insurance is an important part of an insurance commissioner’s responsibilities–and they are on the front line dealing with consumers who face challenges paying for health care. They understand how the marketplace works and they understand how difficult it is to find a solution. Insurance commissioners are regularly consulted by their governors and state legislators because of their hands-on experience.

Governor Sebelius was an extraordinary commissioner. While she was Kansas Insurance Commissioner for eight years, she chaired the NAIC’s Health Insurance Committee and was President of the NAIC in 2001. In those capacities, she not only dealt with the challenges faced by Kansans, but she also played the lead role in developing NAIC policies around health insurance. For example, she was active nationally in the implementation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. She worked with multiple state commissioners with a variety of markets to develop NAIC recommendations around the issues. She understands the insurance markets locally and nationally. 

Having worked with Kathleen during her eight years as commissioner (including being the NAIC Vice President while she was President), I am aware of her incredible talents at forging a consensus on difficult issues. I can’t imagine a better choice.

In a follow-up interview, Vaughn highlighted Sebelius’ ability to bridge gaps between stakeholders with seemingly opposing interests. As an example, she highlighted Sebelius’ role in forging the NAIC’s policy on consumer privacy. One dispute concerned how and when insurers would be able to disclose an individual’s personal health information – and whether such disclosure would necessitate an “opt-in” or an “opt-out” standard. “As you can imagine, there were several divergent opinions on this issue from consumer privacy advocates, industry groups and others. Kathleen somehow pulled everyone together and came up with a standard that was essentially opt-in, but which established exceptions that allowed insurers to conduct basic business functions,” said Vaughan, former Iowa state insurance commissioner.