Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has resigned, ending a turbulent five-year tenure during which the former Kansas governor become the public face of the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act.
President Barack Obama will nominate Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, to replace Sebelius. Obama will make the announcement at 11 a.m. today during a White House event with Burwell and Sebelius, who notified the president of her plan to resign in early March.
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At the time, Sebelius told the president she was confident in the direction the health care law implementation had taken after a tough start. After the enrollment period closed, she felt it was time for new leadership at the department.
More than 7.5 million people have signed up for marketplace coverage nationwide, Sebelius said Thursday in congressional testimony.
Officials said Sebelius, 65, made the decision to resign and was not forced out. But the frustration at the White House over her performance had become increasingly clear, as administration aides worried that the crippling problems at HealthCare.gov, the website set up to enroll Americans in insurance exchanges, would result in lasting damage to the president’s legacy.
Even last week, as Obama triumphantly announced that enrollments in the exchanges had exceeded 7 million, she did not appear next to him for the news conference in the Rose Garden.
The resignation is a low point in what has been a remarkable career for Sebelius, who was a state lawmaker from Topeka and served two terms as the state’s insurance commissioner before she was elected Kansas’ 44th governor in 2002. As governor was named by Time magazine as one of the five best governors in the country and was even mentioned as a possible Obama running mate in 2008.
White House officials were quick to point out the many successes during Sebelius’ tenure: the end to pre-existing conditions as a bar to insurance, the ability for young people to stay on their parents’ insurance and the reduction in the growth of health care costs. In addition, Sebelius helped push through mental health parity in insurance plans and worked with the Department of Education to promote early-childhood education.
Sebelius said in an interview Thursday that she had always known that she would not “be here to turn out the lights in 2017.”
“My balance has always been, when do you make that decision?” she added.
Although the fortunes of the Affordable Care Act and the troubled federal insurance marketplace have improved significantly in recent months, Sebelius remained a polarizing figure in the Obama administration.
Members of Congress complained that her department was slow to respond to requests for information, and her relationship with the Washington press corps was strained.
“Regardless of the administration’s public explanation for the secretary’s exit, Obamacare has been a rolling disaster, and her resignation is cold comfort to the millions of Americans who were deceived about what it would mean for them and their families,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.
Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, a longtime friend of Sebelius, was among the first to call for her resignation back in October.
Roberts, who questioned Sebelius on Thursday at a Senate Finance Committee hearing, said her resignation “was a prudent decision that was overdue, given the failures of Obamacare.”
Sebelius’ problems began after months of assuring Congress that HealthCare.gov would be ready to serve 36 states on its Oct. 1 debut. Instead, the site crashed within minutes with fewer than 200 users.
It was later learned that federal contractors hadn’t properly tested the website and that HHS provided poor oversight of the website’s development.
The website problems hampered marketplace enrollment for two months before a team of computer experts working around the clock got the site functioning properly during the Thanksgiving weekend.
Kansas Democrats who know and who worked with Sebelius during her time in the state said they were surprised by her decision to quit but understood her possible motives.
“I think she has had the toughest job in Washington over the past four years,” said Jim Slattery, a former congressman and U.S. Senate candidate. “She has done a good job under the worst possible circumstances you can imagine.”
Former Kansas Gov. John Carlin said the rough implementation of the Affordable Care Act might cloud Sebelius’ legacy.
“It certainly wasn’t a plus in her column,” he said. “But in fairness, that was probably the most complicated program to be implemented in gosh, a long time.”
Jim Bergfalk was regional director of the Health, Education and Welfare Department during President Jimmy Carter’s administration and worked with Sebelius when she was governor. He said she probably deserves some rest.
“The day she started, there was a (H1N1 flu) pandemic,” he said. “I’m sure she’ll be happy to be with her husband and children and pull back from what’s got to be a killer job.”
Sebelius’ husband, Gary, is a U.S. magistrate judge in Topeka. She returned to the state frequently during her time in Washington, and she remains an important figure and fundraiser in the Kansas Democratic Party.
Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who once worked for Sebelius in the governor’s office, said she might still have a future in public service.
“Kathleen is a tough cookie,” he said. “She’ll look back and think she was a good soldier, she did Obama’s bidding, she took a lot of flack, and that she contributed a lot, politically and in policy terms.”
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. The budget office, which she has overseen since April of last year, is deeply involved in developing and carrying out health care policy.
Sebelius said she hoped — but did not expect — that her departure would represent the beginning of a more cooperative period in Washington to make health care better.
“If I could take something along with me,” she said, it would be “all the animosity. If that could just leave with me, and we could get to a new chapter, that would be terrific.”
Helling, of The Star, reported from Kansas City. Pugh and Wise reported from Washington. The New York Times also contributed.