Leavitt is sworn in, rolls up his sleeves

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WASHINGTON -True to his promise to hit the ground running, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, fresh from his Senate confirmation Wednesday, will jet to Cleveland today to join President Bush when he delivers a speech on health technology.

The former Utah governor received unanimous backing from the Senate and was quickly sworn in at a small ceremony Wednesday night, joined by his wife, Jacalyn, and their son Westin, who had just returned from Ukraine.

"I have great optimism for the opportunity to contribute," Leavitt said. "The president's confidence is a meaningful expression, and the opportunity to serve the American people is a privilege that I cherish."

Leavitt comes to a department faced with a list of pressing matters. He said the "main event of 2005" will be implementing a drug benefit for seniors by the end of the year, which is expected to cost $534 billion over 10 years. The Medicaid system, which provides health coverage to the poor, needs reform and welfare reform that was enacted in 1996 needs to be renewed.

But Leavitt avoided discussing any specifics of how he would achieve his goals.

"My purpose today is not to try to carve out any territory or expand on any policy," he said. "I simply want to express appreciation for the opportunity to provide this service and I'll be giving all my energies to it."

"Quite simply, there is no one better than Mike to meet the many challenges facing HHS," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "Regardless of where he's served, he has brought innovative approaches to solving problems and then built public support to see them put into action."

Claude Allen, a former deputy secretary at the department who is now Bush's domestic policy adviser, administered the oath of office to Leavitt. Earlier in the evening, Leavitt met about 200 HHS staffers during a brief reception, thanking them for their help during the nomination process. He announced that Rich McKeown, who was Leavitt's chief of staff as governor and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, would keep the same role at HHS.

Bush, with Leavitt by his side, is scheduled to receive a demonstration of information technology applications in the health care field at the Cleveland Clinic this morning, then participate in a discussion of the benefits of the innovations.

Leavitt is the third Utahn to serve in a presidential cabinet and first since Ezra Taft Benson was President Eisenhower's agriculture secretary. The other was former Gov. George H. Dern, who was secretary of war during President Franklin Roosevelt's first term.

"The United States of America is very fortunate to have a man of Mike Leavitt's stature available to serve in this Cabinet position," said Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., used Leavitt's nomination to urge the administration to allow prescription drug imports from Canada.