President Barack Obama publicly accepted the resignation of Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and officially announced the nomination of Sylvia Mathews Burwell, currently director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to replace Sebelius at an April 11 event in the White House Rose Garden.
Sebelius spent five years as HHS secretary and oversaw the transition to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden behind him and Sebelius and Burwell standing on either side of him, began by heaping praise on Sebelius for her accomplishments in the HHS secretary post, despite media reports that have indicated that he was deeply upset over technical problems that dogged the first months of the healthcare.gov website, the consumer portal for purchasing health insurance from the federally run health insurance exchange entity.
“When I nominated Kathleen more than five years ago,” the president said, “I had gotten to know Kathleen when she was governor in Kansas, and she was a great adviser and supporter during my presidential campaign, so I knew she could handle this tough job.”
After praising Sebelius for managing a flu epidemic that raged immediately after she came into her position, Obama went on to say, “She’s fought to improve children’s health from birth to kindergarten, to expand maternal health…. she’s been a tireless advocate for women’s health” and she’s overseen an expansion of the focus on behavioral health. “But of course, what Kathleen will go down in history for was serving as secretary of Health and Human Services when the United States of America finally declared that healthcare was not a privilege but a right for every single citizen of these United States of America.”
Obama added, “Kathleen has been here through the long fight to get the [ACA] passed” and to get it fully implemented. “She’s got bumps, I’ve got bumps and bruises… but we did it because we knew that all across the country, there were people who had put off buying a home…. we had met families who had seen their children suffer because of the uncertainty of healthcare, and we were committed to get this done, and that’s what we’ve done. Yes, we lost the first quarter of open enrollment because of problems with healthcare.gov, and there were problems. But Kathleen and her team got it done. And the final score speaks for itself: there are 7.5 million people who have got health insurance because of what this team has done. I am proud of the woman standing here today."
After the event, some television commentators opined that the president’s extended, fulsome comments may have been aimed at underscoring the White House’s assertion that Sebelius chose to leave her position voluntarily and was not pushed out.
Following Obama's comments, Sebelius spoke for a few minutes, saying, “I want to thank you, Mr. President and Mr. Vice President, for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime. The president has already made this case, but I want to remake it. HHS is an amazing department. It’s full of bright and talented and hardworking people who believe strongly in our mission: providing healthcare to all Americans.
Sebelius cited a quotation from former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, whose name was given to the HHS headquarters building. “What Hubert Humphrey said,” she said, “is that the moral test of government is how government treats people who are in the dawn of life, the sunset of life, and the shadow of life.” Sebelius cited gains being made in caring for the health of children, seniors and the poor under her administration at HHS. Moreover, she said, referring to the implementation of the ACA, “We are on the frontlines of a long-overdue national change, fixing a broken health system. Now, this is the most meaningful work I’ve ever been a part of; in fact, it’s been the cause of my life.”
After Sebelius had made her comments, Obama turned to Burwell and said, “Now we know there’s still more work to do at HHS, more work to do to implement the [ACA]. There’s another enrollment period coming in about six months or so,” and there are numerous other key sets of tasks to accomplish. “And I could choose no manager as experienced, as competent, as my current director of OMB, Sylvia Mathews Burwell."
He continued: "Here, as my budget director at the White House, she’s already delivered results. The deficit has plunged by more than $400 billion. When the government was forced to shut down last October and even as most of her own team was barred from reporting to work, Sylvia was a rock, a steady hand” in keeping essential functions of OMB running. “Once the government was reopened, Sylvia was vital to putting an end to these manufactured crises around raising the debt ceiling,” among numerous other accomplishments.
“Sylvia is a proven manager, and she knows how to deliver results,” Obama said. “And she’ll need to be a proven manager, because these are tough tasks, big challenges” ahead for HHS…. All of us rely on the dedicated servants, scientists, researchers, at HHS and the [Food and Drug Administration] and [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and [National Institutes of Health]. All of them are an extraordinary team, and sometimes the American people take for granted the incredible network of outstanding public servants that we have” in the department.
“We’ll miss seeing you around the White House,” he said, turning to Burwell. “But I know that you’re going to do an outstanding job as secretary of HHS. I hope the Senate confirms you without delay."
Last time, Burwell's appointment was confirmed unanimously by the Senate, Obama noted pointedly before he handed the podium over to Burwell. She spoke for barely one minute.
“I’m humbled, honored and excited to build on the achievements that Kathleen, the president and so many others have put into place,” Burwell said, thanking the president before re-entering the White House with Obama, Sebelius and Biden.