WASHINGTON — Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will resign after the rocky rollout of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, and the president will nominate West Virginia native Sylvia Mathews Burwell for the post, a White House official said Thursday.
Sebelius’ resignation comes just more than a week after the end of the first enrollment period for the health care law. While the opening weeks of the rollout were marred by website woes, the administration bounced back by enrolling more than 7 million people in the new insurance marketplaces.
Having served five years as secretary, Sebelius is one of Obama’s longest-serving Cabinet officials. Her resignation comes as the White House seeks to rebound from the politically damaging launch of the health care law.
The official was not authorized to discuss Sebelius’ resignation ahead of the formal announcement and requested anonymity.
The resignation could also set the stage for a contentious election-year confirmation hearing to replace her, as Republicans seek to make the health law the centerpiece of their efforts to retake the Senate in the November midterm contests.
Burwell, 48, the current director of the Office of Management and Budget and former Wal-Mart Foundation president, is a native of Hinton in Summers County.
The daughter of Greek immigrants, she was named to President Bill Clinton’s National Economic Council in 1993 at the age of 27. She got an early start in politics, having helped her best friend’s father campaign for Summers County Commissioner when she was 11, according to a Daily Mail profile written last year.
A Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar, she also worked on Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’ failed bid for the presidency in 1988.
After leaving the White House, she focused her attention on philanthropic efforts, leading global development at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Sebelius, the former governor of Kansas, was instrumental in shepherding the health care law through Congress in 2010 and implementing its initial components, including a popular provision that allows young people to stay on their parents’ insurance plans until age 26.
But Sebelius’ relationship with the White House frayed during last fall’s rollout of the insurance exchanges that are at the center of the sweeping overhaul. The president and his top advisers said they were frustrated by what they considered to be a lack of information from HHS over the extent of the website troubles.
The White House sent management expert Jeffrey Zients to oversee a rescue operation that turned things around by the end of November.
Sebelius dropped no hints about her resignation Thursday when she testified at a budget hearing.
The next secretary will have to contend with huge challenges related to the continued implementation of the health overhaul, as well as the divisive politics around it that show no sign of abating.
On the practical side, the administration has to improve customer service for millions of Americans trying to navigate the new system. There’s also a concern that premiums may rise for 2015, since many younger, healthier people appear to have sat out open enrollment season.
On the political front, congressional Republicans remain implacably opposed to “Obamacare,” even as several GOP governors have accepted the law’s expansion of safety-net coverage under Medicaid. Opposition by congressional Republicans means they can be expected to continue to deny additional funds for implementation.
In a statement emailed Thursday evening, Sen. Joe Manchin said he was delighted to hear Burwell was being eyed for the position.
“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,” said Manchin, D-W.Va.
“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.
“I also sincerely thank Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whom I proudly served with as governor, for her service and unwavering dedication to the health and well-being of all Americans. I join all my colleagues in wishing her all the best in her future endeavors.”
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., echoed Manchin’s sentiments in a press release, saying, “I have marveled at Secretary Sebelius’s grace under pressure. She never backed down from the tremendous responsibilities of her position, which were of a magnitude no other cabinet secretary has ever had to face with regard to domestic policy.
“As Secretary, she was given the enormous task of putting in place and executing the most sweeping health care legislation in our nation’s history. Not once did she let attacks from both the left and the right deter her from the goal of bringing health care to millions of uninsured Americans, and working to improve the health of people across the nation. She is to be commended for this.”