Sebelius signals 'doom' if healthcare funds cut for student loan benefit

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius hit back Thursday at a GOP plan to extend a student loan benefit with money designated for the 2010 healthcare reform law, saying that cuts to preventive care will "doom" future generations.

"We can educate our kids and invest in healthcare at the same time," she said in committee.

"Failing to invest in long-term strategies that would lower our healthcare costs will doom future generations to pay higher and higher health bills and get mediocre results."

At issue is a fund for preventive healthcare created by the 2010 reform law. Republicans say it should go toward maintaining student loan interest rates, which will double this summer without congressional action.

The House will vote Friday to extend the rates using roughly half of the money left in the preventive care fund, which President Obama agreed to cut once before to extend a payroll tax credit. 

On Thursday, Sebelius called the fund a "long overdue investment" in "significant efforts to keep our country healthy and well."

"What we know is that is an investment that returns about $10 for every $1 invested," she said during a question-and-answer session with the House Education and Workforce Committee. "Right now, America spends 80 cents of every health dollar on dealing with chronic disease and illness and about 8 cents of every health dollar on any kind of preventive effort."

She said the cut would lead to layoffs of public health officials and fewer funds for mental health, substance abuse prevention and tobacco use cessation.

Funds for anti-smoking efforts save "thousands of lives," she added. 

A spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) noted that Obama had already signed legislation that cuts the fund, and that Obama's budget would also cut its funding. 

“Secretary Sebelius may want to check with her boss," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. "President Obama has already signed a bill cutting this slush fund into law, and his budget called for it to be cut. Does she believe President Obama will ‘doom’ future generations and ‘cost thousands of lives’?”

Friday's vote comes as fighting escalates between the White House and House Republicans on the issue of student loans.

On Wednesday, Boehner blasted the president for "trying to invent a fight" on student loans in order to sway young voters.

Obama, during a visit to the University of Iowa, had identified Boehner as the obstacle blocking Democrats' efforts to maintain the loan benefit

“We can, and will, fix the problem," Boehner replied Wednesday, "without a bunch of campaign-style theatrics.”