WASHINGTON — Embattled Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has resigned, ending a turbulent five-year tenure that saw her become the public face of the troubled federal health insurance marketplace, HealthCare.gov.
A statement from HHS confirmed her departure: “From her work on Head Start to expanding mental health coverage, to advancing cutting-edge health care research and, of course, her unwavering leadership in implementing the Affordable Care Act, Secretary Sebelius often calls her work here the most meaningful of her life. As she closes this chapter, Secretary Sebelius is extremely thankful to President Obama and very proud of the historic accomplishments of this administration.”
President Barack Obama will nominate Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, to replace Sebelius.
Obama will make the formal announcement at 11 a.m. Friday during a White House event with Burwell and Sebelius, who notified the president of her plans to resign in early March.
At the time, Sebelius told the president she was confident in the direction the health law implementation had taken after a tough start. After the enrollment period closed, she felt it was time for new leadership at the department.
More than 7.5 million people have now signed up for marketplace coverage nationwide, Sebelius revealed Thursday in congressional testimony.
In Burwell, Obama will have a nominee with a strong background in management, implementation and performance. At OMB, Burwell has helped navigate the government shutdown in October 2003 and reach a two-year budget agreement with Congress that Obama signed into law.
Burwell also served in a host of leadership positions at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walmart Foundation and MetLife. She received unanimous confirmation in the Senate to lead OMB and has a record of working well with both Republicans and Democrats.
A former governor of Kansas, Sebelius was Obama’s choice to lead the implementation of the health law known as Obamacare, the president’s signature legislative accomplishment.
Although the fortunes of the health law and the troubled federal insurance marketplace have improved dramatically in recent months, Sebelius remained a polarizing figure in the Obama administration.
Members of Congress complained that her department was slow to respond to requests for information, and her relationship with the Washington press corps was strained.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, “It’s fitting that nearly one year after the primary legislative architect of Obamacare predicted it would be a train wreck that the government official most responsible for overseeing it reportedly is resigning. Regardless of the administration’s public explanation for the secretary’s exit, Obamacare has been a rolling disaster and her resignation is cold comfort to the millions of Americans who were deceived about what it would mean for them and their families.”
Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, a longtime family friend of Sebelius, was among the first to call for her resignation back in October.
Roberts, who questioned Sebelius on Thursday during a Senate Finance Committee hearing, said her resignation “was a prudent decision that was overdue, given the failures of Obamacare.”
Sebelius’ problems began after months of assuring Congress that HealthCare.gov would be ready to serve 36 states on its Oct. 1 debut. Instead, the site crashed within minutes with fewer than 200 users.
It was later learned that federal contractors hadn’t properly tested the website and that HHS provided poor oversight of the website’s development.
The website problems hampered marketplace enrollment for two months before a team of computer experts working around the clock got the site functioning properly during the Thanksgiving weekend.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., praised Sebelius “for her service and unwavering dedication to the health and well-being of all Americans.”
Manchin also expressed confidence in Burwell, a native West Virginian.
“Sylvia’s experience in both the public and private sector, matched with the bipartisan relationships she has built over the years, shows that she is a public servant ready to take on this country’s challenges,” Manchin said in a statement. “I am confident that her leadership will ensure that we enact commonsense fixes to the Affordable Care Act to help improve the lives of millions of Americans.”
Kansas Democrats who know and who worked with Sebelius during her time in the state said they were surprised by her decision to quit but understood her possible motives.
State Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita, a close ally of Sebelius when she served as Kansas governor, said he doubts that the difficulties with the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act had prompted her to resign.
“She served, got the ACA up and running,” Ward said. “Kathleen’s pretty tough. She weathered the storm well. She went through the rough times and now she probably feels comfortable turning it over to somebody else.”
“I think she has had the toughest job in Washington over the past four years,” said Jim Slattery, a former congressman and U.S. Senate candidate. “She has done a good job under the worst possible circumstances you can imagine.”
Former Kansas Gov. John Carlin said the rough implementation of the Affordable Care Act might cloud Sebelius’ legacy.
“It certainly wasn’t a plus in her column,” he said. “But in fairness, that was probably the most complicated program to be implemented in . . . gosh, a long time.”
Jim Bergfalk was regional director of the Health, Education and Welfare Department during the Jimmy Carter administration and worked with Sebelius during her time as governor. He said she probably deserves some rest.
“The day she started, there was a (H1N1 flu) pandemic,” he said. “I’m sure she’ll be happy to be with her husband and children and pull back from what’s got to be a killer job.”
Sebelius’ husband, Gary, is a U.S. magistrate judge in Topeka, Kan. She returned to the state frequently during her time in Washington and she remains an important figure and fundraiser in the Kansas Democratic Party.
It isn’t clear if she will return to Kansas to live. Several friends speculated that she might take a job in Washington in the private sector.
Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who once worked for Sebelius in the governor’s office, said she might still have a future in public service.
“Kathleen is a tough cookie,” he said. “She’ll look back and think she was a good soldier, she did Obama’s bidding, she took a lot of flack, and that she contributed a lot, politically and in policy terms.”
Helling of The Kansas City Star reported from Kansas City. Pugh and Wise reported from Washington. Dion Lefler of the Wichita Eagle and David Lightman and Steven Thomma of the Washington Bureau contributed.