Sebelius talks health care reform at UIC

Marshall Cohen

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Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, touted new benefits for young adults during a panel discussion about the new health care reform law Wednesday at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health.

More than 100 people attended the panel discussion, which was held in the School of Public Health and Psychiatric Institute building, 1601 West Taylor St. in the medical district of the UIC campus.

Sebelius focused on a provision of the Affordable Care Act that allows dependents to remain on their parents’ insurance plans until they reach age 26, a change she called a “huge step forward.”

“As a mom of 20-somethings myself, neither of our children were headed for a job with health insurance when they left college,” Sebelius said. “My older son was going to graduate school, and we weren’t quite sure what my younger son was doing – but it definitely didn’t come with health insurance.”

Inna Azova, a graduate student at the School of Public Health at UIC, sat alongside Sebelius on the panel and said she is already taking advantage of the new provision for young adults.

“Because I’m under 26 years old, I’ve had the opportunity to remain on my parents’ health insurance plan,” Azova said. “Thankfully I’m healthy and young, but at the same time you never know what can happen since there is a lot of uncertainty in health care.”

Sebelius also talked about new efforts to expand the use of electronic medical records, something she said she considers a “critical piece of the puzzle.”

“I can’t think of any other industry in the 21st century where people still rely almost solely on paper files to exchange information,” Sebelius said. “You all are too young to know it, but we used to have to wait until banks opened and write a check and hand it to a teller to get money.”

Before the health care reform bill passed last year, electronic records in the medical industry were sparse – only 10 percent of hospitals and 20 percent of doctors nationwide used them, Sebelius said. Those numbers doubled one year after the new law was enacted and are expected to continue growing, she said.

“Electronic medical records reduce errors, get rid of overhead costs and improve care,” Sebelius said.

Administrators from the UIC School of Public Health and four students were on the panel. Dr. Paul Brandt-Rauf, dean of the School of Public Health, introduced Sebelius.

“We are particularly honored that the secretary has chosen UIC to host this event,” Brandt-Rauf said. “It’s a significant recognition of our role in training the next generation of health care professionals.”

Julie Jesto, a first-year graduate student at the School of Public Health, said the event was worthwhile and informative.

“It was quite a nice opportunity to get someone who is in the upper echelon of the federal government to come here and talk about current reforms and to answer some of the important questions we have here at the local level,” Jesto said.

Many UIC professors sat in the audience, including Elizabeth Calhoun, who teaches health policy and administration. She said Sebelius tailored her speech for the student-dominated audience.

“It is a big thing for students to be able to be insured with their parents plan,” she said. “Nowadays, people don’t necessarily get out of college right away in four years.”

Calhoun also praised the new initiative to digitize medical records.

“Electronic medical records (are) a very important thing for all of health care reform to run successfully,” she said. “We need to be able to track people and reduce waste.”

President Barack Obama signed the new health care law, officially known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, in March 2010.

Since then, 26 states joined together in a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services questioning the constitutionality of the law. Federal courts have issued conflicting rulings on the issue, which is expected to be reviewed by the Supreme Court sometime in 2012 before the November presidential election.

In addition to legal challenges, the Affordable Care Act has faced hurdles in the court of public opinion. Almost all polls since summer 2009 show a strong plurality of Americans oppose the law.

Evan McKenzie, a political science professor at UIC, said the event itself indicated the Obama administration was trying to reclaim the health care narrative.

“Health care reform was a major initiative of the Obama administration, and I think they’re trying to rehabilitate the public image of the new law,” McKenzie said. “Republicans have hammered it relentlessly in the news media, and the administration has done a terrible job of publicly defending it.”

Also participating in the panel were nursing student Jen’nea Sumo, medical student Tokoya Williams and University of Chicago undergraduate Tomi Obikunle, as well Dr. Joe “Skip” Garcia, vice president for health affairs at UIC.

(Editor’s note: The article incorrectly stated that Tomi Obikunle is a premed student. The article has also been edited to clarify which school she attends.)