Kathleen Sebelius has made a career for herself as a leading Democratic politician and has been the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) since 2009, after her time as governor of Kansas. A major part of Sebelius’ job has been to help secure and then promote the Affordable Care Act (ACA). While supporters of the legislation have at times applauded her efforts, her work and stance on healthcare, especially in regards to women’s health has also garnered some criticism.
Soon after taking office, Secretary Sebelius testified the following before the Committee on Ways and Means: “High and rising health costs have certainly contributed to the current economic crisis. Rising health costs represent the greatest threat to our long-term economic stability. If rapid health cost growth persists, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that by 2025, 25 percent of our economic output will be tied up in the health system, limiting other investments and priorities. This is why I share the President’s conviction that ‘health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year.’ Inaction is not an option. The status quo is unacceptable, and unsustainable.” Sebelius’ main priority became helping to usher through one of the contentiously argued pieces of legislation in American history.
Secretary Sebelius has often times been the public face of advocacy for women’s health issues and the Affordable Care Act. For example, in a 2012 op-ed published in the Huffington Post, Sebelius wrote, “Women's health decisions shouldn’t be made by politicians or insurance companies. Rather than wasting time refighting old political battles, this Administration is moving forward and putting women in control of their own health care. If women are going to take care of their families and friends, they have to take care of themselves. The Affordable Care Act is making it easier for women to do that by making health care more accessible and affordable for millions of American women and families.” Part of the strategy Sebelius uses here is to emphasize women’s decision making power and intelligence, rather than falling back on old stereotypes insinuating women’s lack of discernment, a trope particularly called upon in debates around abortion.
Sebelius is understandably a favorite target for anti-abortion advocates who question the logic of the pro-choice Catholic from Kansas. However, Sebelius also has been under fire from the Left after she lead the charge to reverse the FDA’s decision on over-the-counter emergency contraception. In 2011 The New York Times reported that, “For the first time ever, the Health and Human Services secretary publicly overruled the Food and Drug Administration, refusing…to allow emergency contraceptives to be sold over the counter, including to young teenagers.” While this ruling was eventually overturned, Sebelius’ turnabout damaged her credibility with many supporters of women’s rights. As Jodi Jacobson, Editor in Chief of RH Reality Check, writes, “politicians and religious leaders alike will, when it suits them, marginalize the rights and needs of women to advance their own interests and need for power. And somewhere, someone in the Obama Administration, perhaps the president himself, gave the cue to HHS to overrule the FDA decision. And clearly, as she sometimes did as governor of Kansas, Sebelius did the deed.”
The bumpy rollout of www.healthcare.gov has also been a part of Sebelius’ tenure of HHS secretary. The Washington Post reports that during a photo-op in Miami, the “embattled HealthCare.gov Web site reportedly crashed Tuesday as Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius was watching a couple sign up for health insurance.” Besides the general embarrassment of such reports, Sebelius herself has been blamed for the website's slow start.
Additionally, legal challenges to the ACA, such as the current kerfuffle with Hobby Lobby, prove that opponents to the legislation are not slowing down in their attempts to dismantle the law.
Despite this censure, Sebelius remains one of the most important figures in the implementation of the ACA and will undoubtedly continue to be the go to figure in the administration as open enrollment in the health care market draws to a close on March 31, 2014 and the next phase of the ACA begins.