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'Loyal Soldier' Sebelius Vows To Stay Put, Fix HealthCare.gov

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius speaks Thursday in Phoenix.
Laura Segall
Getty Images
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius speaks Thursday in Phoenix.

This has not been an easy month for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas — who learned the political ropes working for Sebelius' father-in-law, then a Kansas congressman — called for her to step down over the debut of HealthCare.gov, the problem-plagued website where people are supposed to apply for coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Invited on the usually friendly-to-Democrats The Daily Show, Sebelius was lampooned by host Jon Stewart, who challenged her to a race of sorts: "I'm going to try and download every movie ever made, and you're going to try to sign up for Obamacare, and we'll see which happens first."

And while she was able to laugh off Stewart's opening gag, Sebelius had trouble clearly explaining why, if businesses have been given an extra year to implement Obamacare, individuals shouldn't have the same delay.

Sebelius served six years as the Democratic governor of largely Republican Kansas. She is the daughter of the late Ohio Gov. John Gilligan. University of Kansas political science professor Burdett Loomis says she remains popular at home, despite the hits she's been taking in Washington:

"This hasn't been an easy time for her. The Obamacare rollout has clearly been problematic; she pretty much got roasted on Jon Stewart; but she's been a loyal soldier to Barack Obama and I think she truly believes that Obamacare is in the best interest of the country."

Seven years ago the Bush administration unveiled Medicare Part D, which provides seniors with prescription drug benefits. The website for that program had a similarly rocky debut. The HHS secretary then was former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who notes Sebelius did not make many of the key decisions regarding the rollout of Obamacare. Leavitt says he empathizes with Sebelius:

"It's much like being the pilot of an airplane full of passengers sitting on the tarmac with a series of complications you don't entirely control. It's better to say to the passengers, 'This is where we are. This is how much time we expect it'll take. ... Here's what we're doing to remedy it and here's how it's going to affect you. We're doing our best.' "

Before being elected governor, Sebelius was Kansas insurance commissioner. The Republican occupant of the job now, Sandy Praeger, says the glitches in the rollout of Obamacare are not Sebelius' fault.

"The complexity of what she's having to deal with is massive and in an environment that's been pretty politically charged, to say the least. So I have a great deal of sympathy for what she's having to work through," says Praeger. "I know she's probably very frustrated."

Praeger says calls for Sebelius to resign are totally inappropriate. And in an appearance in Phoenix, Sebelius rejected Republican demands she step down.

'The majority of people calling for me to resign I would say are people who I don't work for and who do not want this program to work in the first place," Sebelius said Thursday. "I have had frequent conversations with the president and I have committed to him that my role is to get the program up and running, and we will do just that."

Sebelius is expected to testify before a House committee investigating the Affordable Care Act's implementation as soon as Wednesday.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.

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