Kathleen Sebelius' legacy on Obamacare: Failure or success?

President Barack Obama (2nd L) applauds after announcing Director of the Office of Management and Budget Sylvia Mathews Burwell (2nd R) as his nominee to replace outgoing Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius (R), during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, April 11, 2014. At left is U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden. Reuters

With Obamacare's six-month open-enrollment period behind her, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced this week that she would resign. And on Sunday, the secretary denied she was pushed out of her job over the early problems with the health care law's implementation, saying it was simply a "logical time to leave."

"The president and I began to talk, you know, after the first of the year," Sebelius said in an interview that aired Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "And I went back to him in early March and said, 'You know, I'm really optimistic we're going to meet the targets and the enrollment is good, the site is working well. I think once we finish this first chapter you really should begin to look for the next secretary who can be here through the end of your term.'"

Sebelius said President Obama knew asking her to stay was not an option. "I thought it was fair to either commit until January of 2017 or leave with enough time that he would get a strong, competent leader," she said.

Whatever the motivation behind it, her announcement ignited a fresh debate about her record in overseeing the implementation of a law that's considered the president's most significant domestic policy achievement. Obamacare's supporters offered qualified praise for the secretary's tenure, saying that despite the initial problems with the website governing the law's insurance exchanges, the end result -- 7.5 million insurance enrollees, according to the administration -- speaks for itself.

Obamacare's opponents, though, lashed Sebelius on her way out the door, continuing to pan the law as an example of government failure and renewing their demands for full repeal.

Sebelius "gave a lot of good service to the president and to the country," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., on "Fox News Sunday." "She was there nearly six years and in an extremely tough job at a very consequential time through the whole health care bill and through the rollout with all these malfunctions."

That said, he added, "I think it probably is a good thing to have a new face going forward."

Sebelius "accomplished what she had to accomplish," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md on "Face the Nation." "She set a goal of seven million signed up for private health care. She got 7.5 million. Three million others expanded Medicaid. She's accomplished a lot with regards to health care disparities, women's health. And she has brought us...closer to an HIV/AIDS free generation than anyone. So she's accomplished a lot."

Cummings said the website problems were a "significant problem" that Sebelius was assiduous in fixing, and that they would ultimately be only a "footnote in history."

Flanked by Sebelius during an event in the Rose Garden on Friday, the president himself offered a glowing review of her performance, saying she would "go down in history" for her role in expanding health insurance coverage.

There were "problems" initially, Mr. Obama conceded, but "under Kathleen's leadership, her team at HHS turned the corner, got it fixed, got the job done, and the final score speaks for itself. There are 7.5 million people across the country that have the security of health insurance, most of them for the very first time, and that's because of the woman standing here beside me."

Republicans, though, weren't going to let a resignation stand in the way of their continued indictment of Obamacare.

"No, it's not going to quiet the controversy" over the law, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said of Sebelius' resignation on "Face the Nation." "I think it's quite the opposite. What it has done is to elevate some of the concerns."

Blackburn said the president's nomination of Sylvia Mathews Burwell to replace Sebelius was an interesting choice, given Burwell's current role as the director of the Office of Management and Budget.

"They know they've got a math problem with Obamacare," she explained. "The numbers are not going to work out so that the program is actuarially sound, and they're going to have to have somebody to kind of spin the numbers."

Blackburn predicted Republicans would continue their drive to "repeal and replace" the law.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told NBC that Sebelius' resignation "is the latest indication of just what a disaster Obamacare is."

"Obamacare is the most disastrous, the most damaging piece of legislation in modern times," he said. "And I believe she resigned because Senate Democrats are scared" of getting trounced in the 2014 midterm elections.

  • Jake Miller

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