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Executive Summary

HHS SECRETARY SULLIVAN IS LIGHTNING ROD FOR REP. STARK's CRITICISM of Bush Administration health policies. At an Aug. 2 press conference, Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) launched a personal attack on the HHS secretary. Citing Sullivan's position on abortion rights and his lack of support for increased federal coverage for the uninsured, Stark said that "Louis Sullivan comes as close to being a disgrace to his profession and his race as anyone in the cabinet." Referring to Sullivan's apparent change in position on abortion rights before he was confirmed as secretary, Stark said: "He started out believing that women should have control over their bodies and he was turned around by an administration that got him to back off and come out with a position on abortion that's untenable in modern society." Stark further accused Sullivan of promoting health care access, especially for minorities, while representing "an administration that isn't going to spend 10 cents to deliver medical care to Americans who need it." The House Ways and Means/Health Subcommittee chairman's lambasting of the HHS secretary came at a press conference called to announce his sponsorship of legislation to recoup Medicare and Medicaid costs for cigarette-related illnesses. The comments about Sullivan were made during a question-and-answer session. Sullivan "smacks to me of a person who is being used by the Administration and does not have the strength of his own convictions," Stark said. "A man who wants his job so badly and won't stand up for what is right is a pretty weak citizen." In quick response to Stark's statements, HHS released this statement attributed to Sullivan: "I demand an apology from Congressman Stark for his intemperate remarks and personal attack made earlier this morning in Washington, D.C. I wish he had the guts to make his comments to my face. I don't live on Pete Stark's plantation. It's too bad ultra-liberals like Pete Stark haven't progressed to the point where they can accept the independent thinking of a black man that does not conform to their own stereotyped views." Refusing to make any conciliation, Stark continued where he left off at a late afternoon, same-day press conference. "Real racism," he said, is that blacks have worse health problems and shorter life expectancies than whites. Referring to the Administration's position of denying Medicaid coverage for abortions, Stark said that Sullivan "does not really have the courage to turn his back on [White House Chief of Staff John] Sununu. He's turning his back on the needs of his race, who are disproportionately poor and disproportionately in need of medical care." Stark aides said his outburst was sparked in part by a July speech Sullivan made in Atlanta, in which he called for increased health coverage for all Americans but through the current system of private and public programs. Stark has advocated national health insurance approaches and currently is sponsoring legislation that would establish universal health coverage financed by a 4% income tax increase. Stark is also described as irritated at the Bush Administration's opposition to a proposal by Stark and Rep. Downey (D-N.Y.) to allow dislocated workers to receive health coverage under Medicare. However, Stark said later that the cumulative effect of Administration policies led to his frustration, rather than any single action. House Republicans including Minority Leader Michel (Ill.) and Rep. Gradison (Ohio) came to Sullivan's defense the next day. After Michel demanded during a House floor speech that Stark apologize, Stark took the podium to say: "To bring race or religion and personal attributes into a policy debate is wrong, and to the secretary I have to say I blew it. I should not have brought into the discussion [Sullivan's] race." An HHS spokesman said Stark's remarks were "anything but an apology," and said further comments were expected from the congressman.

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