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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Michael Leavitt
Secretary of Health & Human Services

July 31, 2007

Michael Leavitt
Good afternoon, this is Mike Leavitt and I'm glad to be here with you today to discuss the Administration's efforts to improve the safety of imported products and increase access to affordable health insurance plans.

Sally, from Birmingham writes:
With all the recent recalls on food, what is President Bush doing to make sure our food supply is safe? Is there anything as a citizen I can do to safeguard my family?

Michael Leavitt
Americans have a reasonable expectation that the products they buy are safe and our food supply is the safest in the world. There is a lot we are already doing to ensure the safety of imported goods, but we need to continually improve our import safeguards to meet the changing demands of a global economy.

Recently, the President asked me to chair a working group made up of a dozen secretaries and agency heads from key federal departments that are engaged on import safety to take a fresh, broad look at how we import from many different countries. The group is looking into all imported products, not just food. The President asked us to report back to him by mid-September with recommendations on ways we can do things better.

Of course, this effort will add to all that is already being done to protect import safety. At HHS, we have created a new Assistant Commissioner for Food Protection at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

And when we find out that there is a problem with food or other imports, we take action. You probably have read of recent actions the FDA took to stop a number of fish products from coming into our nation from China unless they can be shown to be safe. That enhanced a ban that was already in place on imports from certain Chinese companies. In recent months, we had also stopped certain products from Mexico – cantaloupes, in that case – because of food safety concerns. That product has been addressed by the Mexican government and importers so now we can allow those products back in as before.

Other agencies are also very engaged in actively protecting the safety of imports. The Department of Homeland Security, for instance, has a new effort to target potentially dangerous imports. Other agencies have also made adjustments or improvements as a result of recent events, too. Further, the working group the President established is looking into what we are doing and what else can be done.

Your question about what you can do is very important, too. There is much that you can do just by being an informed consumer. When the FDA determines that there is a food product, for instance, that does have a problem, we work hard to make sure that message gets out to the public. For guidance on what you can do, I’d encourage you to go to, where you can find advice to help consumers prevent food borne illness.

tom, from detriot writes:
schip seems to be socialist goverment sponsored health care in sheeps clothing. how can we make sure people understand that?

Michael Leavitt
Let me be clear that the President supports the reauthorization of this program, which expires on Sept. 30th. We do not want to see the coverage of children in any way jeopardized but the massive expansion proposed by some in Congress is not the way to go. SCHIP needs to remain focused on low-income children, and should not become the vehicle by which we extend insurance through the federal government to all Americans. For example, some bills now in Congress would allow people up to the age of 25 to be eligible for SCHIP as well as a family of four making than $80,000. If these bills pass, the focus of the SCHIP program would shift away from low-income children.

We all agree that every American should be insured. The question before us is whether the federal government should own the health care system or whether it should organize a system that fosters competition and choices. When the federal government owns the health care system, it means higher taxes, fewer choices, longer lines, and lower quality care. Adding competition changes the dynamics – leading to lower costs, more choices, higher quality.

One way we’re working toward changes at the federal level is our proposal to eliminate tax policy discrimination against those who buy health insurance on their own rather than through their employers. We’re also working to educate Americans about the price and quality of their health care. That is why HHS launched an initiative to change our focus to a value-driven health care system. When consumers have information, they can be a force in driving quality up and costs down.

Our health care system needs reform, but not in the direction of socialized medicine. We need reform based on a free, competitive marketplace organized to make private health insurance affordable, and price and quality information available, to all Americans.

Cliff, from Brimfield, Ohio writes:
Secretary Leavitt:When it comes to our food supply. Lately we have had some real issues and some re-calls. What do you feel is the problem, not enough INSPECTORS or the way the food is inspected? And with the President asking you to head up a group on food. He must feel there is some concerns that needs to be addressed. Both for now and for the future. Where do you start? Thank You

Michael Leavitt
Increasingly, Americans are buying in a global market, and we need to work at all levels to improve quality. We need to build safety in at the front end – not inspect problems out. This means building in standards for safety at the start, where products are produced and made.

As part of the import safety working group, one of the discussions is how much safer would our products be if we inspected more products than we do now. Those are the kinds of questions we need to be asking and we are doing that. What we learn will feed into our report to the President, which will include an inventory of all that we are doing for import safety. Clearly, we cannot eliminate all risk, but we can make sure we continue to minimize the risk as conditions change.

GREGORY, from TORRANCE, CA writes:

Michael Leavitt
Recent events have understandably focused Americans on the safety of food and other imports. The Food and Drug Administration within my department and the US Department of Agriculture have identified concerns about what they see as insufficient infrastructure in China to assure the safety, quality and effectiveness of a number of products exported to this country. We have both taken action – in some cases, stopping those products from coming into our country until we believe those products to be safe -- and my colleagues and I have raised these issues to the highest levels of the Chinese Government.

In our meetings with Chinese representatives, we emphasized the need for three things: the first is to have better cooperation, the second is better information, and the third is regulation that we can understand, agree with and feel confident in. Our two countries have committed to a series of bilateral meetings. We’ve opened discussions this week, and in the coming months I hope to be able to announce two agreements between our nations: one on the safety of food and feed and one on the safety of drugs and medical devices.

We can’t afford, politically or economically, to shut other countries out of our market, but we have made it clear that we must be sure of the safety of the products imported to our country. And we are working to extend our own standards of safety abroad as much as possible. I am sure that these discussions in our meetings with Chinese officials will help us as we form the recommendations the import safety working group will be developing in September.

Matthew, from Nashville Tennessee writes:
Mr. Secretary, I recently have received my Masters degree in Health Services Administration and I am a future health care administrator. One of the biggest issues currently facing Americans is not having adequate access to quality care. This is specifically true in regards to our nation's children. What can specifically be done to help improve access to the quality care our children so desperately deserve? Thank You

Michael Leavitt
Ten years ago, Congress passed the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or “SCHIP,” as a means of ensuring that children in low-income families would have access to the health care they need. Today, SCHIP provides health insurance to approximately 6.6 million children across the 50 states. It has been a very successful program and must be reauthorized before it expires on September 30th.

Beyond that, as you suggest, there is a widely held aspiration that every American should have access to affordable health insurance. In addition to the federal programs – such as Medicare, Medicaid and SCHIP – that offer assistance to the poor, the elderly, and the disabled, there is a real need to create a marketplace that will provide access to affordable health care for all Americans.

Many states recognize the problem and we are working with them to support their efforts to make insurance more affordable for all Americans. In addition, the President has a proposal to help level the playing field for Americans who purchase health insurance on their own. Federal and state policies and laws need to ensure that those who buy health insurance on their own do not face tax discrimination and get the same tax break that a person who gets health insurance from their employer. In addition, employers who buy insurance for their employees will continue to receive the same tax breaks that they do today. Creating a system where individuals and families alike can afford health insurance will go a long way toward ensuring a healthy future for all Americans.

In addition, we are working to provide consumers with more information to help them evaluate the quality of their care. Every American should have access to a full range of information about the quality and cost of their health care options. Providing more information will empower consumer choice. That will create incentives at all levels and motivate the entire health care system to provide better care for less money. To learn more about how we’re seeking to create a value-driven health care system, please go to our website:

Michael Leavitt
It has been a real pleasure to chat with you today. Please look for future updates on about our work in these areas.

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