April 12, 2014 in Opinion

Barbara Shelly: Kathleen Sebelius deserves credit for surviving furnace

 

So this is it for Kathleen Sebelius. The former Kansas governor officially announced her resignation as U.S. health and human services secretary on Friday.

The headlines make her sound like a combat casualty, ending her “stormy tenure” after the “disastrous rollout” of HealthCare.gov, stumbling away battered and bloodied.

But, seriously, the woman has lived in a furnace for five years. She’s been dragged in front of congressional committees, pilloried by pundits and politicians, abandoned by friends (looking at you, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.) and asked to build a massive health insurance marketplace with scant resources. Frankly, a lesser individual would have bailed months ago.

No doubt, the rollout of the insurance exchange marketplace was horrible, and it exposed serious management weaknesses. But look, presidents since Harry S. Truman have been trying to reform America’s health care system so that people of all ages, incomes and health conditions have access to affordable medical care.

We’re not all the way there yet. States like Missouri and Kansas still want to deny Medicaid to low-income working families, for instance. But we’re closer to that goal than we’ve ever been before, and Sebelius has been a big part of it.

It’s definitely time for her to go. She’s been in the middle of too many fracases. The website debacle is too fresh. There’s an election coming up and she’s a convenient punch line.

But let’s take the long view. People in time will forget about the blank screens and error messages that accompanied the start of HealthCare.gov. The website will continue to improve and people will find it easier and more understandable. Already 7.5 million persons have coverage through the insurance exchange.

The Affordable Care Act has passed the point of repeal. Its consumer protections are changing America. People no longer need fear denial of care or financial ruin because they have a serious illness. Young people can remain on their parents’ insurance policies until they are more secure. There are no more lifetime caps on coverage.

Health care reform has been like a big boulder scraping up a hill. And there’s a long distance yet to climb. But the system is fairer and better now than it was when President Barack Obama began his push five years ago, and Sebelius has been in the middle of it all.

Someday, not too long from now, Sebelius will assume a comfortable spot in history as Obama’s HHS secretary during the epic health care wars. She voluntarily entered the furnace, and she stood in with a measure of grace.

Meanwhile, I suspect there’s a beach in Sebelius’ near future.

Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. Her email is bshelly@kcstar.com.

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