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Sebelius: Veteran of healthcare wars

By Brian Todd, CNN
updated 9:29 PM EDT, Wed October 23, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sebelius from prominent politcal family in Kansas
  • Republicans ramp up calls for her to resign due to Obamacare website problems
  • One ally says she is focused on consumers and patients
  • As Kansas Governor, she tried to finance expanded health coverage through cigarette taxes

(CNN) -- Navigating the political waters in her own family, says one ally, likely prepared Kathleen Sebelius well for the partisan cauldron she's now enduring in Washington over the rocky rollout of the Obamacare website.

The embattled Health and Human Services Secretary was the daughter of a Democratic governor of Ohio, then became the daughter-in-law of a Republican Congressman from Kansas. Her husband is a federal magistrate.

"You know, when you've got a father and father-in-law who are from different political parties, both outspoken. ... I think she learned a great deal from that and I think it has served her very well," says Ron Pollack of the healthcare advocacy group Families USA.

Sebelius will need every ounce of that experience.

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Republicans in Washington are ramping up their calls for her resignation. She'll very likely face intense questioning next week, when she testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the problems with Healthcare.gov, the sign-up website for President Barack Obama's sweeping healthcare plan.

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The scrutiny is only getting tougher as Sebelius dodged questions about enrollment numbers and why the administration wasn't better prepared before the rollout.

In an exclusive interview with CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta on Tuesday, Sebelius was asked twice if she would consider resigning.

One of her responses: "I think my job is to get this fully implemented and to get the website working right. And that's really what I'm focused on."

Gupta: 5 surprises from Sebelius interview

Sebelius' Obamacare damage control fuels critics' fire

The healthcare wars are nothing new to her. A Catholic, she drew the wrath of the Church when, as Governor of Kansas, she vetoed a restrictive anti-abortion bill.

But as the nation's Health Secretary, she made a decision contrary to her pro-choice record, overruling an FDA recommendation to make the so-called "morning after pill" available over the counter to females under 17.

As Governor she tried and failed to finance expanded health coverage through cigarette taxes. Earlier, as the state's Insurance Commissioner, she fought to bring premiums down. But one critic says she drove insurers out of the state.

"There was a significant rise in regulations placed on healthcare, which drove the cost of providing healthcare in Kansas up," said Todd Tiahrt, a former Republican Congressman from Kansas. "I think that was the most significant reason, that's why they departed. They felt like they were in a position where it was not profitable to do business in Kansas. So it limited our choices for healthcare providers," Tiahrt said.

But Pollack defends Sebelius on that score.

"Her first focus is how to help consumers, how to help patients. And she has been on that side all along," he says.

Born in Cincinnati, Sebelius was the daughter of the late John 'Jack' Gilligan, who served as Ohio's Governor from 1971-1975. They became the first father/daughter pair to serve as governors, with her election in 2002.

John Gilligan died in August of this year. Sebelius's husband, Gary, is a federal magistrate judge in Kansas. They have two grown sons. Sebelius's father-in-law, Keith Sebelius, was a conservative Republican congressman from Kansas from 1969-1981.

One of Keith Sebelius's top aides was current Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who considers himself a longtime friend of the Sebelius family. But Roberts was among the first members of Congress to call for the Secretary's resignation.

Some Sebelius allies believe Roberts turned on her because he's got a primary challenge from a tea party supported candidate. Roberts spokeswoman Sarah Little denies that.

She says Roberts was a longtime opponent of Obamacare, but the "last straw" for him was when Sebelius went on a public speaking tour just as the rollout calamity began.

"When the ship was sinking," Little says.

CNN's Lesa Jansen contributed to this report.

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