Leavitt keeping his eye on health care issues

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SALT LAKE CITY -- It's been more than a year since former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt ended his tenure in the cabinet of President George W. Bush. He's now turned his attention to the private sector, but he's still paying close attention to political issues.

Leavitt spent nearly 11 years as one of Utah's most popular governors, five years-plus in the Bush cabinet, running the EPA , and then stepped in as Secretary of Health and Human Services.

These days a lot of people would like to know, what are Mike Leavitt's future political ambitions?

He says, "Ha, ha. I have none at this moment."

At this moment, the former governor is immersed in business -- he started two health-related firms; and family -- the former governor is suddenly a grandpa, six times over.

"Life is good for the Leavitts, and we're very grateful for the time I had in public service," he says.

As the former top federal health official, Leavitt's watching the health care debate carefully, hoping states like Utah lead the way to reform.

"I do think that the national government has to play a role, but the role is to organize, not to own or to operate," he says. "And I hope that the state will use its power to organize a system, as opposed to taking it over."

Because he's a former top federal official, we asked about constant attacks by Utah lawmakers on the federal government.

"If we had a smaller, more limited national government, people would have more confidence in government generally," he says.

The former "education governor" is concerned about the proposal to eliminate 12th grade, a year he admits some students don't use effectively.

He says, "Now, I don't think we ought to do away with the 12th grade. I do think we ought to make certain that our children have incentives to utilize the time well and that the system has incentives to make it the most productive. And I'm not sure we've found that formula. And I think we can improve that."

He says Utah has created some kind of miracle. "A reasonably high quality of education for a modest amount of money," he says.

But he says we need to do better. "We need to focus on measuring the system not by how much money we spend but by how much progress we're making."

What about the pandemic scares -- swine flu and avian flu -- that started on his watch?

"Any time you talk about an epidemic, you sound a little bit alarmist. But history teaches, once a pandemic starts, anything you've done in preparation will seem inadequate," he says. "But there will be a day when we will have a highly efficient, highly communicable virus that will sweep across this country. And communities that are not prepared will meet a tragic outcome."

Leavitt emphasized to us he's not making any plans for future office and is not actively seeking anything. But he expressed an eagerness to take the knowledge and experience he's gained and turn it, once again, to public service.

He says he spends about 25 percent of his time giving speeches and commentary, mostly on health issues, and both his businesses are health-related.

E-mail: hollenhorst@ksl.com

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