Kathleen Sebelius, the long-embattled secretary of Health and Human Services who was at the center of the disastrous rollout and implementation of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, is stepping down this week after five stormy years in the administration.
The New York Times reported Thursday evening that President Obama has accepted the former Kansas governor’s resignation and will nominate his budget director, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, to replace her.
Sebelius, 65, made the decision to leave on her own, according to officials, and was not forced out. Nevertheless, Obama had been under pressure for months to fire her. He had resisted, in part because he did not want HHS to undergo more upheaval amid all the problems plaguing HealthCare.gov, and in part because of his general reluctance to publicly rebuke top officials, according to media reports.
Still, there was little doubt that tensions had grown between the president and his secretary, and the news media made a lot about body language and Obama’s propensity to keep Sebelius in the background at cabinet meetings and other events promoting Obamacare.
Late last year, Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” humiliated her for being computer illiterate. She was forced to grovel and apologize to Republicans and Democrats alike during testy hearings before House and Senate committees. Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican from her own home state of Kansas and a longtime family friend, called on Sebelius to resign for “gross incompetence” in the wake of flawed exchanges and enrollment technology.
Obama had little good to say about her during an interview with NBC News last November in which he, too, had to apologize about the Obamacare website, which had been crudely designed and which had thwarted the efforts of many Americans to enroll for health insurance for months after the formal launch last October.
Asked by Chuck Todd if he still had “full confidence” in Sebelius in the aftermath of the hobbled launch of HealthCare.com, Obama said, “I think she’d be the first to admit that, if we had to do it all over again, there would have been a whole lot more questions than were asked in terms of how this thing is working.”
Still, he added, she “doesn’t write code; yeah, she wasn’t our I.T. person.” As recently as last week, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, rejected any suggestion that Sebelius would be fired.
The former Democratic governor of Kansas, Sebelius was an early backer of Obama’s first campaign for president. She spent five years running HHS presiding over the largest change to government health programs since Medicare and Medicaid began almost 50 years ago.
Ironically, Sebelius’s departure comes amid the first really positive news about the health insurance program since its inception.
Sebelius testified on Capitol Hill on Thursday morning that more than 7.5 million people have signed up for Obamacare. The latest enrollment tally includes the 7.1 million Americans who signed up through the exchanges before midnight on March 31 — the official end of the open enrollment period. It also includes an additional 400,000 people who have taken advantage of the special enrollment period for health insurance shoppers who had trouble signing up through the online exchanges. That special enrollment period is scheduled to end April 15.
The president is hoping that Burwell, 48, a Harvard and Oxford educated West Virginia native with a background in economic policy, will bring an intense focus and management acumen to the department, according to The Times. The budget office, which she has overseen since April of last year, is deeply involved in developing and carrying out health care policy.
“The president wants to make sure we have a proven manager and relentless implementer in the job over there, which is why he is going to nominate Sylvia,” said Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) issued a statement late today praising Sebelius.
“From day one, Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has remained laser-focused on a single purpose: to make health care a right, not a privilege, for all Americans,” Pelosi said. “Her leadership has been forceful, effective, and essential.”
“She has been the key figure in the day-to-day work of implementing the [health insurance] law and securing new protections for patients,” Pelosi added. “Her legacy will be found in the 7.5 million Americans signed up on the marketplaces so far, the 3.1 million people covered on their parents' plans, and the millions more gaining coverage through the expansion of Medicaid.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) also offered words of praise. “Secretary Sebelius had one of the toughest jobs in Washington - implementing Obamacare, a flawed law that continues to fall woefully short of its promises to the American people,” he said. “While we haven’t always agreed, Secretary Sebelius did the best she could during the tumultuous and volatile rollout of the law. I thank her for her service and wish her and her family all the best in their future endeavors.”
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