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Former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala talks health care reform, importance of university partnerships

Former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala during a Q&A Wednesday afternoon in the Archie M. Griffin Grand Ballroom at the Ohio Union. The discussion served both as part of the Provost’s Lecturer Program and as the closing to day one of Ohio State’s inaugural Community Engagement Conference. Credit: Matt Dorsey | Engagement Editor

Former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala discussed health care reform, the role of universities in shaping public policy, and her unusual relationship with Donald Trump in the 80s during a 60-minute Q&A at the Ohio Union Wednesday afternoon.

Moderated by NBC4-WCMH anchor Colleen Marshall, the discussion was a part of the Provost’s Lecturer Program and marked the closing to the first day of Ohio State’s inaugural Community Engagement Conference.

Shalala has a lengthy career in academia and academic administration — she first became a college president, of City University of New York’s Hunter College, in 1980 and was president of Miami University (Fla.) from 2001 to 2015 — and drew from that experience to highlight a recurring theme of this week’s Engagement Conference: the importance of partnerships in achieving goals, and how that is reflected in the evolution of university research.

We continue to have individual researchers, but increasingly, they’re operating in teams at universities,” she said.

Shalala further illustrated the point with her experience at HHS — where she was secretary for the entirety of the Clinton administration — noting that when she arrived, the majority of department awards were given to individuals, but were mostly being given to teams by the end of her tenure.

“The world had changed and we could not solve problems just with individuals.  We had to come together,” she said.

Several of Marshall’s questions centered on health care reform and she specifically asked Shalala her thoughts on the current presidential administration’s vow to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

“Can Donald Trump destroy it? I think the ‘repeal and replace’ debate indicates he cannot because they don’t have a ‘replace,’” Shalala said. “It’s hard to replace. It isn’t hard to nip around the edges, to get rid of the mandate, for example, that everybody take health insurance.”

The repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate, which requires all Americans to carry health insurance or face a fine, is part of Republicans’ recently passed tax law. Shalala said it will lead to higher hospital costs for insured patients so hospitals can pay for the care of an increasing number of uninsured patients.

Shalala said the desire of most Americans is to have good quality health care for everyone at an affordable rate, but cautioned anyone hoping for sudden, sweeping change, adding that successful policies such as Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare were “incremental changes.”

“The Democrats will have the same problem on health care for all, on ‘Medicare for all’ that the Republicans have on ‘repeal and replace,’” she said. “Because once you get down to the details, people start getting nervous.

“I have better health insurance than Medicare. A lot of people work for companies that have better health insurance than Medicare and when you start saying ‘Medicare for all’ your question is ‘Hey, are you going to move down my insurance to give everybody health insurance?’”

Rumors that Shalala will run for a congressional seat based in Miami, Florida, have spread, but Shalala was noncommittal when asked directly by Marshall if she will run, only conceding that she is looking into polling data to assess her chance of success should she run.

Her political ties are substantial: in addition to being HHS secretary, she was president of the Clinton Foundation for two years and was appointed by President George W. Bush to a 2007 commission dedicated to improving care for wounded soldiers.

She also knows the current president from her time in New York as president of Hunter College, where she said Donald Trump called her with a suggested candidate whenever there was a coaching vacancy on Hunter’s football or basketball team.

“If the coach that we picked didn’t work out, he’d send me notes pointing out that he had made another suggestion,” Shalala said.

When Marshall asked what role universities should play in building partnerships to achieve policy change, such as health care reform, Shalala said the expertise that academics can provide is invaluable, but that they need to approach people outside universities as equals.

“People are afraid of university people a little bit. We tend to be a little arrogant, a little bit pointed-head intellectuals,” she said. “When we talk about partnerships, we’ve got go act like a partner, not always like the leader, not always as the instigator.”

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