May 19, 2001
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Senate panel gives Jindal enthusiastic welcome

Aziz Haniffa
India Abroad Correspondent in Washington

Piyush 'Bobby' Jindal, 28, the quintessential child prodigy, currently president of the University of Louisiana System in Baton Rouge, who has also served as professor of management in LSU, and who became the first Indian American to be nominated by President George W Bush for a senior administration position, received an enthusiastic welcome from members of the Senate Finance Committee at his confirmation hearing.

In early March, Bush nominated Jindal to be assistant secretary of health and human services for planning and evaluation. After the Senate's confirmation -- which is expected to be a formality, going by the way the members of the Finance Committee gushed over him and his achievements -- he will be one of the youngest Asian Americans to be appointed to such a senior executive service job.

But being the youngest to hold several senior positions, both in government and academia, is nothing new to Jindal. He has been secretary of the Louisiana department of health and hospitals from 1996 to 1998, when he was barely 24, and executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare from 1998 to 1999, before creating history as the youngest president of LSU at age 26.

For the record, Jindal graduated from high school at 16, and then completed his college degree from Brown University at age 20 and was off to Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar.

On his return, after a short stint as a business consultant, he was recruited by Louisiana Governor Mike Foster to work for the department of health and hospitals, which was in bad shape. Jindal not only rescued the system, but enhanced the quality of health care provided by the state.

Senator John Breaux, Louisiana Democrat, who introduced Jindal, said, "He and I have had a long association professionally and personally. He is a terrific addition to Secretary (of Health and Human Services Tommy G) Thompson's team."

Breaux said, "I think it is important that we have people who can run the day-to-day operations and people who can think outside of the box because we in Washington sometimes begin to get locked into small boxes and don't think outside these boxes and I think it always does not produce very good public policy."

He said, "Bobby Jindal has had every job I can think of in Louisiana that's important. He is currently the president of our university system, which has eight universities. He was one of the chief staff assistants on our National Medicare Commission and rescued our Louisiana medicaid programme and if anybody can do that, hell, you can do any job in the federal government."

Breaux declared, "Bobby, what you do, you do very well and we are very proud of you and we are delighted to have you in your new position."

Jindal in his testimony thanked Breaux, Sen Mary L Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, his congressman, Representative W J 'Billy' Tauzin, Louisiana Republican, representing the state's 3rd district, "and other members of the Louisiana delegation that offered to be here".

"I think they are a wonderful example of the opportunity to work together in a bipartisan way," he added.

After introducing his wife Supriya, who had flown in from Baton Rouge while in the midst of her medical exams to be by her husband's side during his appearance before the powerful committee, Jindal recounted his experiences in health care beginning from the time he worked for the Louisiana department of health and hospitals.

He said he was "very grateful" for his first break to Governor Foster "because there are some things that I learnt there that I think will be relevant going forward".

"We faced many challenges there and we certainly had to do many things not only to reform the spending practices of Louisiana's health-care programme, but also in increasing quality."

Jindal said, "Even though we were charged with rescuing the programme from deficits and from being on the verge of default of many of its obligations, what I am most proud of was improvement of quality. Even though we were able to decrease spending dramatically, we were also able to enhance the quality of health care."

He spoke fondly of his incarnation in Washington, DC, as executive director of the bipartisan Medicare Commission and noted that he believed the commission "has done some useful work and both the president and Secretary Thompson have talked about using the commission's work as good starting points to continue dialogue".

Of his most recent incarnation as head of Louisiana's higher education system, Jindal said, "I am again proud of the work and the accomplishments and the progress we made in terms of increasing graduation and dramatically decreasing the re-education rates."

"We also had some overlap with our health-care systems," he noted, "in that we had programmes to increase the number of health-care professionals and we also had programmes and scholarships to increase the number of under-represented individuals -- either from minority groups or rural populations who are represented in our pre-medical and other health-care programmes."

Jindal told the members of the Senate committee that for him it was "indeed a honour and a privilege" to be picked by the president for this important policy-making position at HHS, "and I am very humbled to be here before you today".

He recalled that recently on Mother's Day, "I was reminded of my own mother and that I was once a 'pre-existing' condition. When she moved to Baton Rouge, her health insurance would not cover my delivery because she was four months pregnant when she arrived."

Jindal continued, "At the time, the cost of my health care, as my father reminds me, totalled their entire life's savings". Fortunately, his parents were able to work out a deal with the hospital and the doctors "where they paid monthly payments".

"I just mentioned that to you," he said, "because I am very sensitive to the plight not only of the hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana that don't have access to secure health care, but to the millions of Americans that also don't have access to secure health care."

"So I am excited about the opportunity, if confirmed, to work with all the members of this committee and indeed your staffs to address these issues," he added.

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Sen Max S Baucus of Montana, on hearing this story by Jindal, quipped, "Sounds like that out of a pre-existing condition, there is a pre-existing asset."

On the very day he was nominated by President Bush, in what is considered an unprecedented gesture, Thompson, former governor of Wisconsin, also issued a strong endorsement of his nomination, saying that Jindal would be an asset to the HHS.

Thompson said he was "delighted" by President Bush's nomination of Jindal as the point person for the HHS's planing and evaluation bureau.

Thompson said this bureau "is the leading policy development office at HHS, and in this position Bobby will be responsible for developing major reform initiatives, including Medicare modernization and expanding coverage for the uninsured".

"Bobby brings an extraordinary blend of policy and administrative experience in major health-care structures. He is widely recognized as someone who can see the big picture, formulate workable approaches, and get the job done," he said.

"In particular," Thompson added, "he can help us move quickly in a bipartisan push to bring the Medicare programme into the 21st century."

He noted, "I have said many times that we must not be bound to practices of the past. We have new challenges and we need to be open to new approaches."

According to Thompson, "We need innovation and fresh, clear vision. Bobby Jindal is a proven innovator and problem-solver. His experience at both state and national levels will be invaluable as the administration works to improve America's health and human services programmes, and to make our department more responsive, efficient and effective."

Thus, Thompson said, "It is very important to me to have Bobby leading the reform team at HHS, and I know his contribution will be significant and positive."

Young Troubleshooter

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