We know the name of the 44th President of the United States: Barack Obama. As the next President’s supporter Oprah Winfrey is known to ask, “What do you know for sure?” When it comes to health, there are a few things we know about a President Obama.

First and foremost, addressing challenges in U.S. health care will require a multi-pronged strategy which brings stakeholders together. The key health-aches to address will be:

– Covering the uninsured
– Stemming rising health care costs
– Wiring the health information infrastructure and getting electronic health records into medical practice
– Funding what works, and de-funding what doesn’t
– Ensuring an innovative health discovery and commercialization environment.

This is not a one-man job, and Senator Obama knows that. He has surrounded himself with a cadre of experts who understand these Big Hairy Health Issues and are on the forefront of solutions. He has, thus far, made smart choices in his campaign staff and advisers. This is the concept known as “judgement.”

Some of the names mentioned to head up health cabinet and key office posts are very sound. To head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Peter Orszag of the Congressional Budget Office has been talking passionately about health care and the Medicare Trust Fund for several years. Read his approach to health care costs here in Health Populi as the CBO dissected health care costs. In addition, the Obama team has worked with David Cutler of Harvard, a health economist who writes papers with Dr. Mark McClellan, and author of the 2003 seminal paper, “Why Have Americans Become More Obese?” which tied together health with the food industry, calorie consumption, and time required to prepare meals; and, Dan Mendelson of Avalere Health, a well-respected beltway consulting firm deep into health care.

There are several interesting contenders to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, including Howard Dean, the head of the Democratic National Committee, former governor of Vermont, and a physician; Tom Daschle, the former Senate Majority leader wrote Critical: What We Can Do About the Health Care Crisis, and a supporter of universal health plans; Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, who has actively reformed insurance in her state; and, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who understands the life science industry and universal health coverage.

Health and safety are key issues for the next President to address, and the FDA needs to Get Smarter about its role in ensuring safe Food and Drugs. Some of the names mentioned for FDA Commissioner are more controversial than those rumored for the other senior health posts. One is Steve Nissen of the Cleveland Clinic, who has been involved with clinical trials and very visible recently with drug safety and recalls and one of TIME magazine’s most influential people in 2007. In addition, several advisers to Obama on FDA issues have been Harvard professor David Blumenthal who has helped shape Obama’s health plans and is part of the Kennedy health camp; Robert Califf of Duke Medicine, who has worked on FDA reorganization plans; Dora Hughes, an MD/MPH and advisor to both Kennedy and Obama on health issues; Bruce Psaty of the University of Washington, who is health safety guru; and, Susan Wood from George Washington University, who left the FDA when the Agency failed to move the morning-after pill to over-the-counter status and now researches environmental and occupational health.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: While the economy may preclude accomplishing major reforms for the first two years of an Obama presidency, some major issues can be tackled and planned-for. We’ve missed sound longer-term planning in these agencies, and in the larger health reform discussion. In particular, wrestling with Medicare’s financial sustainability will be crucial as we lurch toward the expected implosion of the Medicare Trust Fund in 2017. Peter Orszag’s visibility in health cost speech-making have placed him in a central expert
role for dealing with this.

The health economists have a big role to play in sorting out how to pay for performance and migrate the U.S. toward evidence-based medicine and payment. Getting primary care into its rightful place at the nexus of the citizen and the health system will be part of a larger move toward managing costs and optimizing health outcomes.

In this statement in the October 9, 2008, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, Modern Health Care for All Americans, Obama sets out his health priorities. He says,

“My health care plan has three central tenets. First, all Americans should have access to the benefits of modern medicine. Once and for all, we must ensure that this great country lives up to its ideals and ensures all Americans access to high-quality, affordable health care. Second, we must eliminate the waste that plagues our medical system — layers of bureaucracy that serve no purpose, duplicative tests and procedures that are performed because the right information is not readily available, and doctors providing unnecessary care for fear of being sued. Third, we need a public health infrastructure that works with our medical system to prevent disease and improve health.”

Godspeed, Mr. President.