Kathleen Sebelius: Veteran of health care wars

HHS Sec. Sebelius in the hot seat
HHS Sec. Sebelius in the hot seat


    HHS Sec. Sebelius in the hot seat


HHS Sec. Sebelius in the hot seat 02:04

Story highlights

  • Sebelius comes from prominent political families in Ohio, 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 with cigarette taxes
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 health care advocacy group Families USA.
Sebelius will need every ounce of that experience.
Aside from Obama, Sebelius has been the most prominent figure associated with Obamacare and, because of that, a top target. Demanding she step down, Republicans have ripped her; Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming called her a "laughingstock" who has lost credibility.
They won't go easy on her Wednesday, when she testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about problems with HealthCare.gov, the sign-up website for President Barack Obama's sweeping health care plan. The website isn't the only problem: Other parts of the Affordable Care Act have come under fire too, including whether people could have their current insurance policies dropped or how much more they might pay for insurance.
Yet as her critics have stepped up, so has Sebelius. Last week, she crisscrossed the country touting the benefits of Obamacare and teaching people how to take advantage of them.
And in an exclusive interview last week with CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Sebelius said that -- for all the flak directed her way -- she is eager see this program through and to watch it succeed.
"(This is) the job that I came here to do," she said. "This is the most important work I've ever done in my life, delivering on an historic act, making sure that we have health security for ... millions of Americans."
The health care 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 "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 health care, which drove the cost of providing health care 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 health care 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 is the daughter of the late John 'Jack' Gilligan, who served as Ohio's Governor from 1971 to 1975. They became the first father/daughter pair to serve as governors, with her election in 2002.
John Gilligan died in August. Sebelius' 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 to 1981.
One of Keith Sebelius' 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.