It's 7:30 a.m. on a sizzling August day in D.C., and Kathleen Sebelius is ready to run, security guards in tow. Earlier in the morning, she was busy lifting weights at the gym. Later, she'll do a series of satellite-TV interviews, followed by a national press conference. She's just back from a visit out West, hitting a state a day--Oregon, Montana, Colorado, California--to address everything from antismoking efforts to Medicare fraud. As President Obama's Secretary of Health and Human Services, Sebelius manages her day with military precision. She has to. After all, the former Kansas governor is charged with implementing the nation's Affordable Care Act, after fending off a tsunami of opponents. For breakfast today, she barely had time for a banana. But the 62-year-old mother of two made time to tell Marie Claire readers what they need to know.
Q: There's a lot of confusion about health reform. What's the single most important thing women should know?
A: Being a woman will no longer be a "pre-existing condition." In the current market, women are penalized in many ways: For instance, we've all heard about how health insurance companies can deny women coverage if they're pregnant, deeming pregnancy a pre-existing condition. That's changing in 2014. Also, starting this year, moms who have children with pre-existing conditions won't have to worry about finding plans that will cover their kids.
Q: Rape, domestic violence, and C-sections have also been considered pre-existing conditions by some health insurers. Will that change as well?
A: Yes, those rules are changing in 2014. Domestic violence has been used against women in other ways, too: For example, in some states, it can be considered a pre-existing condition in life insurance plans. So there's a contradiction: Women are encouraged to report abuse to police, but those police reports can be used by life insurers to deny coverage. That's an issue I took on as governor of Kansas, and we made some progress, but there's more to be done.
Q: About a third of women in the U.S. are obese. How are you tackling this?
A: For starters, beginning next year, chain restaurants must post calories on their menus. Also, the FDA is working on front-of-package labels for grocery-store foods, listing things like sugar, salt, trans fats. And moms should know that we're providing bigger budgets for school lunches, as vegetables are more expensive than processed foods. It's a big step forward. It wasn't too long ago that ketchup was declared a vegetable.
Q: Currently, a woman can pay up to 150 percent more for health insurance than a man if she's not on an employer plan. Is this changing?
A: Yes, this will be a dramatic change in the rules. In 2014, insurers won't be able to charge women more than men. Women can go to the site healthcare.gov (opens in new tab) for a great snapshot of the insurance plans available to them.
Q: And women will no longer have to pay deductibles or copays for preventive services, right?
A: Yes, starting now, new health plans will have to cover recommended preventive services like screenings for breast cancer and cervical cancer.
Q: What about birth control--will that be considered a preventive service?
A: It's possible. Our agency has asked the Institute of Medicine to look into additional preventive services for women. We expect to get their recommendations next summer.
Q: What's the biggest myth regarding health-care reform you'd like to dispel?
A: During the debate around the health insurance reform law, some people incorrectly said that the new law would lead to a government takeover of health care. This couldn't be further from the truth. The Affordable Care Act strengthens our private health insurance system by making coverage more affordable, and by putting Americans--not health insurance companies--in charge of their own health care.
Q: On a lighter note, you were number 57 on the Forbes "Most Powerful Wom-en in the World" list last year. Are you gunning for 56?
A: I didn't even know I was on the list!
Q: What's your guilty pleasure?
A: DQ Blizzards with Heath bars.
Q: Rumors swirled in the past that you were a potential running mate for John Kerry and, later, for Barack Obama. Will you ever run for president?
A: I love what I'm doing. I'm really up to my eyeballs in trying to do one of the most exciting jobs I've ever had. I'm not thinking about next steps right now!
Abigail Pesta is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes for major publications around the world. She is the author of The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down.
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