Skip to main content

More questions swirl around Sebelius

By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN
updated 7:42 PM EST, Fri November 15, 2013
  • More trouble for Obamacare puts more pressure on Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
  • Rep. Nick Rahall, D-West Virginia, said 'heads should have rolled' over disastrous roll out
  • Crisis management expert says federal agencies take the blame and the White House collects the props

Washington (CNN) -- The disastrous roll out of the Affordable Care Act raises a litany of questions about President Barack Obama's leadership and management ability. But it also begs for an answer to who would take the fall.

As problems mount, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-West Virginia, said Thursday that "heads should have rolled" at the White House.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the woman in charge of implementing Obamacare, took the blame for a flawed website, even as calls mounted -- inside and outside of Washington - for her to be fired.

Testifying before a hostile congressional committee, Sebelius said she should be held accountable for the online site that stumbled out of the starting gate on October 1 and won't be functioning smoothly for most people -- according to Obama, himself -- until the end of the month.

"I'm responsible," she told lawmakers.

Jones and Scalise debate Obama's fix
AHIP 'concerned' over Obamacare fix
More honest salesmanship on Obamacare?

But Obama had her back. White House Spokesman Jay Carney said the President has "full confidence" in Sebelius.

Eric Dezenhall, crisis management expert and CEO of Dezenhall Resources, said that an age-old White House policy is that federal agencies take the blame and the White House collects the props.

But as letters started landing in people's mailboxes, notifying them that their health insurance plans were being canceled, Sebelius might have been in deeper hot water, except that Obama promised when selling Obamacare that people could keep their plans if they like them. That was not true in the end.

Obama takes brunt of new storm

People were given false assurance. Sebelius shrunk out of the spotlight as Obama's unkept promise took the brunt of a new storm.

It culminated in a public apology on Thursday when Obama -- also talking about the website -- acknowledged that he "fumbled" the launch of his signature domestic policy achievement.

While Obama is taking responsibility publicly, internally he is faced with many questions, including why his staff let him make such a claim if it wasn't true.

Should Sebelius have known?

She was responsible for overseeing the implementation and creation of the specifics of Obamacare. Additionally, as a former insurance commissioner responsible for approving or rejecting coverage plans for Kansas consumers, it seemed like she would have had an understanding of the impact as federal coverage standards changed to become more robust.

And some insurance commissioners are troubled by the President's proposal to allow a one year extension of individual health plans -- those most likely to be canceled.

Sebelius' successor, Sandy Praeger, said she and her fellow insurance commissioners around the country warned the administration early on.

"We said from the get-go that if you start taking pieces out of this, it will collapse," Praeger told the Lawrence Journal World.

Should someone be fired?

"I think there is limited utility in just firing people, but if you need to do it for political reasons, it's always an option," Dezenhall said.

Dezenhall cautioned, however, that this is not an acute problem but a chronic one, and firing Sebelius won't make everything magically better.

Even if Obama chose to fire Sebelius, he would need to replace her, and that may be the ultimate reason why she may stay on for now.

Not only would it take time for a new health secretary to get up to speed, a permanent replacement requires Senate confirmation -- lately an unappealing prospect for Obama.

Finding someone else would likely subject Obama to a damaging political fight with Republicans determined to draw as much attention to the problematic components of Obamacare.

CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein said that a new health nominee would ensure "virtual certainty" for Republicans to "use this as kind of a way to leverage more concessions from the administration."

CNN's chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, said Sebelius' head would roll at some point.

"He's very deliberate. In the end, will she go? Eventually. But there are lots of other issues she's got to deal with first," Borger said.

But for now, this is Obama's problem. It is called Obamacare, not Sebeliuscare.

"Hiding ceases to be an option," Dezenhall said. "Hiding is an option when you have a place to hide and when no one is looking. It's not an option when there's no place to hide and everyone's looking."

Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:35 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
House Speaker John Boehner said he has sued the Obama Administration in federal court over its decisions to make changes to the President's health care law.
updated 3:00 PM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
Two potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates -- Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Marco Rubio -- are teaming up on a proposal to replace Obamacare.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Sun October 12, 2014
Tthe Department of Health and Human Services has released a report highlighting the impact of the law on hospital costs.
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Two U.S. appeals courts issued conflicting rulings on a subject that's important to millions of people: the availability of subsidies to help purchase coverage.
updated 10:06 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
It was a tale of two rulings -- the best of times and the worst of times for Obamacare in the federal appeals courts.
updated 6:00 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
More than half the public says Obamacare has helped, but less than one in five say they've personally benefited from the health care law.
updated 8:01 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
House Republicans are going forward with plans to sue President Barack Obama and will base their legal case on the sweeping health care law he championed and they despise.
updated 6:41 PM EDT, Tue October 29, 2013
Nationally, consumers are learning a number of well-known hospitals won't accept insurance under Obamacare.
updated 1:16 PM EST, Mon December 23, 2013
Open enrollment started October 1. Here's a step-by-step guide to navigating the insurance marketplaces, also known as exchanges.
updated 4:37 AM EDT, Sat October 19, 2013
Obamacare has survived a Supreme Court appeal, a government shutdown and ongoing challenges by opposing politicians.
updated 10:44 AM EDT, Thu September 26, 2013
If you don't know what all those health insurance buzz-words like "co-pay" and "premium" mean, you're not alone.
It's a popular assertion, but is it true? The CNN Politics team hunts down the facts.
Some may offer help navigating the new health insurance marketplace for a fee. Others will warn that you will need a new Medicare card.
updated 12:57 PM EDT, Mon September 30, 2013
Who's in, who's out... and what about the costs? CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta breaks down Obamacare.
Consumers can avoid the exchanges by buying plans directly from insurers or through brokers. But should they?
Here's the first look at insurance premiums on 36 exchanges run by the federal government.
Check out our page with all things you need to know about Obamacare and how it will affect you.