WASHINGTON — In one of her first public speaking events since she left office last month, former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Tuesday thanked her supporters, jabbed her detractors and shared some of the encounters with everyday Americans that kept her going through the rough, early days of the Affordable Care Act rollout last year.
Speaking at a national conference of Enroll America, the nonprofit group that organized outreach efforts in support of the health care law, Sebelius thanked hundreds of staff members and volunteers from 48 states for helping to sign up 8 million people for marketplace health coverage.
The final tally beat the original Congressional Budget Office estimate of 7 million sign-ups, even though the federal marketplace website, HealthCare.gov, wasn’t operating properly in October and November, the first months of the six-month enrollment period.
“You have done something that no one has had a chance to do before,” Sebelius told the crowd. “You have not only worked to pass comprehensive health coverage, but you’ve now connected people with comprehensive health coverage and financial security. You are on the front lines of history and you are making a huge difference for individuals, for communities and for this country.”
Sebelius said their effort was even more stunning considering the ferocious political opposition they faced.
“We knew we were facing very daunting odds,” she said. “We had right-wing media, leadership in Congress (that) was determined on the House side to stop this law at any cost, shadow political organizations, hostile governors, hostile legislators all working to make sure you couldn’t do the job that was so important.”
Sebelius herself faced withering attacks from GOP lawmakers, who thought that she and her staff had misled them about progress on the website, which crashed on its Oct. 1 debut. Democratic Gov. Steven Beshear of Kentucky, who also spoke at the conference Tuesday, praised Sebelius as keeping cool under pressure.
“This lady’s a hero,” Beshear said. “I never saw anybody take more abuse, undeserved abuse. And by golly, she just stood there, she took it and she made this darn thing work.”
Sebelius said her darkest days were in October and November, when the fate of HealthCare.gov was uncertain, even though she’d promised the nation the site would be functional by Dec. 1.
“I think probably the most terrifying couple of days in that process were Nov. 30 and 29, and thinking, ‘I really hope this is going to work,’ ” Sebelius said. “I would trade those eight weeks in October and November in a heartbeat, except somebody said to me, ‘Would you like a smooth website and 4 million enrollees or a rocky website and 8 million?’ I’ll take the 8 million,” she said to applause.
Once the website was fixed, Sebelius hit the road, visiting nearly 50 cities to encourage people to sign up for coverage. Along the way, she said, conversations with everyday people who needed health coverage helped keep her focused.
She said flight attendants sometimes slipped her notes about their personal health challenges, which her staff helped resolve.
Once, while boarding a flight, Sebelius said, a man handed her his cellphone so she could speak with his wife. “She said, ‘I just need to tell you, you saved my best friend’s life,’ ” Sebelius recalled.
The woman’s friend hadn’t had health coverage in six years and after gaining insurance under the health care law, she found out she had a life-threatening tumor, which was successfully removed.
“The doctor said she had about four months if she had not identified this,” Sebelius said. “ ‘I just had to say thank you.’ ”
Sebelius charged that governors who wouldn’t use the health care law to expand eligibility for their states’ Medicaid programs _ leaving millions without coverage _ were “playing politics” with people’s health. “That’s something that has to be worked on as we move forward,” she said.
Republicans have opposed broadening access to Medicaid, saying it’s a costly government expansion that neither the nation nor states can afford. They say the program should be overhauled to correct rampant fraud and abuse.
Beshear, a Democratic governor in a largely red state, said he’d become the “face of Obamacare” on a national level for “calling out Sen. Mitch McConnell and others who continue to try to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.”
While the health law and President Barack Obama remain unpopular in Kentucky, the success of the state’s insurance marketplace _ 421,000 people enrolled _ has turned some heads and is changing some minds in the Bluegrass State. Beshear said 70 percent of the newly covered had never had health insurance before and 30 percent were in the 18-34 age group.
“Now that we have 421,000 potential voters in Kentucky signed up for health care, our senators and others seem to be looking at it a little differently, trying to talk about it a little differently,” Beshear said.
Unlike other governors who needed approval from their state legislatures, Kentucky law gave Beshear sole authority to expand Medicaid. “I didn’t ask anybody’s position,” he said. “I just did it.”
Beshear urged the crowd of volunteers to continue working to get more Americans covered.
“Keep it up,” he said. “We’re going to change the world.”