Health Chats with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius

kathleen-sebelius

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius with Health Editor-In-Chief Ellen Kunes.

Kathleen Sebelius is going to have an impact on your life. If she hasn’t already, that is: The 64-year-old Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services is playing a pivotal role in changing the way healthcareworks in the U.S.

On a recent rainy Thursday, fresh out of a meeting with foreign dignitaries at the United Nations, Sebelius made her way to the Health offices to chat with a few editors. We brought the Secretary your questions about health and healthcare. Here’s an excerpt from the conversation:

What is one key thing women should all be doing for their health?

My own personal bias is exercise, because anyone can do that, anyplace, anytime.

It’s not always so easy to fit it in!

For me it is, but I’m a recovering jock. [Laughs] It’s true a lot of people regard it as painful. But I continue to believe that people can find something they like. If you like to dance, take a dance class. If people just walk for 30 minutes a day—you can do it in two 15-minute segments—they can reduce their chances of becoming diabetic by 60 percent.

What do you do for exercise?

I run five days a week. I take shoes with me whenever I travel and do it everywhere. I’ve even run in Red Square. It’s fun to see different neighborhoods that way. And now I have people who run with me, so if I get lost it’s easier. [Laughs]

We all want to eat right but it’s so darn expensive. Any advice?

One big barrier to eating fresh, healthy food is availability. But there are lots of encouraging projects underway: Walgreens has moved fresh fruits and vegetables into stores, and we’re seeing that with lots of grocery partners. In Louisville, Kentucky, the Dollar Store put up six racks of fruits and vegetables right at the front of the store, so you can get your 75 rolls of paper towels and a banana. [Laughs] In Denver, every meal in every school is made from scratch. Half the schools have gardens. I was in a school the other day and the kids were showing me all the things in the salad bar that they’d grown themselves. One boy said to me, “You know what basil smells like? It’s cool, isn’t it?” To have a third grader conversant with basil!

So we’re headed in the right direction.

There’s beginning to be real recognition that one third of our kids are overweight and obese. One of the most alarming statistics is that about 30 percent of military-age-eligible men and women are obese and so many are not physically able to be in the military. If we had to mobilize the armed forces, we have all these people sidelined. The Department of Defense has been a great partner in promoting healthy lifestyles, because we’re not talking about dress sizes here—this is a national security issue.

Yikes. Let’s talk healthcare. What’s the main thing we need to know?

Basically, if you have insurance now, there are going to be some new features introduced when your plan year renews—for a lot of people that’s either this fall, or in January. Among other changes, all plans will offer preventive care without copays. And all plans will do that over time—you don’t have to sign up for a new plan or do anything. And everything from cancer screenings to well-woman visits will be covered in that way.

Then, if you don’t have coverage at all or don’t have affordable coverage, starting in January 2014, you’ll have lots more choices than you have right now, and you won’t be locked out or dumped out because of pre-existing conditions or anything else.

Any big healthcare myths you’d like to clear up?

Here’s the main thing to remember: If you like your healthcare plan now, your coverage will not change. You can just stay on it. Also, the world is not coming to an end. [Laughs]

All this stuff is so complicated.

I used to say you could find out a lot more about the toaster you just bought than about the insurance you’re considering buying for your family. Thankfully, we just put out a rule that says companies will have to put out a summary of benefits. So, if you and your husband both have employer-based coverage and you want to figure out the best plan for your family, you can compare them side by side in clear language. Health plans are now required to present all the information in a form that we created, so it’s easy to read, easy to understand and compare. You’ll be able to know what’s covered—and you don’t even have to read Chinese or Sanskrit. [Laughs]

The amazing thing is, once companies had to put their plans out there in a clear way, they started to change their rates because they didn’t want to be the most expensive plan on the list.

Where can we find this info?

If you do to Healthcare.gov you can type in your zipcode and up will come the available plans for you in the market compared side by side.

One Health editor already got some money back from an insurance company!

She’s one of 13 million people who got a rebate from their insurance company. About 1.1 billion dollars was sent back to folks. That is unheard of.

Women often have a hard time putting their own health first—we tend to put ourselves last. What can we do to change that?

Oh women, terrible! [Laughs] A lot of women take care of their kids’ health, their spouses, maybe they’re caring for an older parent, and their own health goes to the back of the line. When I was insurance commissioner a thousand years ago, most Kansas insurance plans covered Viagra but did not cover contraception. Women were not even in NIH health studies until the 80s. We have been an afterthought for a long time. And you wonder why women put themselves last! [Laughs] it’s really kind of stunning. But, step by step, we are catching up now.

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