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Sebelius resignation revives Obamacare fight

Republicans relish hearings for new HHS leader ahead of midterm elections

Kathleen Sebelius, President Barack Obama, and Sylvia Mathews Burwell. Associated Press/Photo by Susan Walsh

Sebelius resignation revives Obamacare fight

WASHINGTON—Even as Republicans questioned what took Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius so long to resign, they insisted replacing her would not solve the Obamacare problem.

“It’s about time,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Republican from Kansas, where Sibelius once served as governor. “I have battled the liberal Sebelius agenda in Topeka and Washington, opposed her appointment as HHS Secretary, and have called numerous times for her resignation.”

In the wake of Obamacare’s ongoing challenges and unpopularity, other GOP lawmakers chimed in: “She should have done this six months ago,” Rep. John Fleming, R-La., tweeted.

Sen. Jerry Moran, another Republican from Kansas, warned that “even though Secretary Sebelius will be gone, every promise the president made about Obamacare—if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor; health care costs will be lowered; and if you like your health plan you can keep it—will remain broken. Changing the secretary won’t change the problem—a disaster is still a disaster.”

Republicans were quick to comment on Sebelius’ resignation, bombarding reporters’ email inboxes on Friday morning with similar statements. Most Democrats, however, have been silent.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., chose to focus most of his statement on the nomination of Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the current director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), as Sebelius’ replacement. But even Manchin’s remarks focused on reworking Obamacare. He said he was “pleased” that a native West Virginian had been chosen to “enact commonsense fixes” to the healthcare reform package.

But most Republicans won’t let the Democrats move on from Sebelius so easily in an election year. The midterm election strategy championed by the White House and congressional Democrats focuses on saying as little as possible about Obamacare as November approaches. But Sebelius’ resignation and Burwell’s upcoming confirmation hearings put the Obamacare debate back onto the political main stage.

Many Democratic staffers had hoped Sebelius would wait to leave until after the elections. Her resignation surprised many on Capitol Hill and puts Democrats seeking reelection, especially those with vulnerable Senate seats, on the Obamacare defensive.

The prospect of an Obamacare spotlight amid the Burwell confirmation hearings should make Democrats uneasy, considering the latest Obamacare poll numbers. More than 80 percent of respondents in a new Pew Research Center survey said a candidate’s stance on Obamacare is important. Fifty-four percent said it was “very important.” Those who said the issue was important disapprove of the law by a 2 to 1 margin.

Overall, 50 percent of Americans in the poll said they disapproved of the law, while just 37 percent favored it. That is the lowest approval rating for Obamacare since the summer of 2010, just before voters sent a tidal wave of Republicans to the House during that fall’s midterms. With these numbers, Democratic incumbents should expect a barrage of ads tying them to Obamacare leading up to November.

Sebelius, who testified before Congress on Thursday without disclosing her plan to resign, will be remembered for an Obamacare launch that she herself called a debacle. The healthcare law’s website repeatedly crashed and Obama administration officials repeatedly pushed back deadlines, confusing both insurers and their customers.

At a congressional hearing last October, Sebelius acknowledged that Obamacare “has been a miserably frustrating experience for way too many Americans.”

“You deserve better,” Sebelius added then. “I apologize.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., was more kind than most Republicans after Sebelius’ announcement, saying in a Thursday tweet “she had an impossible task: nobody can make Obamacare work.” But his backhanded compliment reflects where the GOP will focus its arguments now that Sebelius is gone: the law is more of the problem than any of the law’s implementers.

Sebelius’ series of verbal missteps did make her a prime target of Obamacare opponents. She claimed last summer that the Obamacare website was “on target” and “ready to go” only to see its October rollout turn into a disaster. It was later revealed that internal progress reports had warned website and data hub issues with HealthCare.gov would lead to long wait times and frozen Internet pages. Even as Sebelius stood behind Obamacare’s implementation, insurance industry executives saw red flags and predicted a train wreck.

Robert Gibbs, President Barack Obama’s former press secretary, called the clunky rollout “excruciatingly embarrassing for the White House and for the Department Of Health and Human Services.”

When a reporter last December asked Sebelius if there would be any more delays in Obamacare, Sebelius said no, only to have Obama in January again extend the enrollment deadline for some people.

Of great concern for social conservatives, Sebelius, was unable at the hearing last October to answer a question about abortion coverage posed by Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill. Pro-life groups have discovered abortion coverage surcharges hidden in some of the new multi-state healthcare exchanges created by Obamacare.

Shimkus asked Sebelius if she would “commit to us to make sure that the federal exchanges that offer [abortion] are clearly identified … so people can understand if they’re going to buy a policy that has abortion coverage or not?”

Sebelius’ response did not comfort pro-life Americans: “Sir, I … I don’t know. … I … I know exactly the, the, uh, um, issue that you are talking about. I will check and make sure.”

But Sebelius did, in March 2013, become one of the few Obama administration officials to admit that insurance premiums could rise as a result of Obamacare.

“Some people purchasing new insurance policies for themselves this fall could see premiums rise because of requirements in the health care law,” she told reporters at the time, in a prediction that has come true for millions of Americans.

Lawmakers now move on to Burwell’s confirmation. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., tweeted that she is an “excellent choice.” Last year, the Senate voted 96-0 to confirm Burwell, a Harvard graduate and longtime Democratic staffer with stints in former President Bill Clinton’s administration, to her current post at OMB. But it’s doubtful all Republicans will be that easy on Burwell this time around, mainly because some will see her confirmation as a chance to make Democrats squirm over Obamacare.

“I hope this is the start of a candid conversation about Obamacare’s short-comings," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “Virtually everyone who has come into contact with this law has had new reason to worry about what it means for the government to control their health care. Secretary Sebelius may be leaving, but the problems with this law and the impact it’s having on our constituents aren’t. Obamacare has to go, too.”

Obama’s team had hoped to put a coda on the Obamacare debate for the year with its April 1 Rose Garden party, during which they celebrated their claim that 7 million people had signed-up for insurance under the law. Without thanking Sebelius by name or asking her to stand beside him as he spoke, Obama said at that pep rally that Obamacare “is here to stay.”

“The debate over repealing this law is over,” he added.

But that celebration and the positive media coverage it was designed to trigger now seem like months ago in the ever-spinning political news cycle. Sebelius’ exit means the debate is just entering the next phase, months ahead of a crucial election.

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the executive director of the World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.


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