Professor’s Take: Kathleen Sebelius’ historic tenure at the helm of HHS

Sara Rosenbaum is the Harold and Jane Hirsh Professor of Health Law and Policy at the Milken Institute School of Public Health.

With the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the post mortems have flowed like water.

Commentators opposed to health reform, always searching for any fresh angle in their unending campaign against the Affordable Care Act, have proclaimed that Sebelius should have been shown the door months ago. Progressive voices have praised Sebelius for her commitment to health reform and her leadership during high-profile public health crises such as the pandemic influenza threat.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons.
Former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

Throughout the implementation odyssey, Sebelius stood on the front lines, endlessly pressing forward as the nation took a profound step toward greater fairness. Those who don’t recognize the enormity of her achievements might suppose that a malfunctioning website and disparagement on late-night television are her legacy, but in reality, she should be remembered for pushing through one of the most important pieces of legislation in this new millenium.

In a ceremony marking her departure, President Barack Obama reminded us all of the brilliance of her time at the helm of the nation’s largest federal agency.

Beyond her tireless work to reduce health disparities and improve health care for children, women, and those with mental illness, the president noted that the Secretary “will go down in history … as the Secretary of Health and Human Services when the United States of America finally declared that quality, affordable health care is not a privilege, but it is a right for every single citizen of these United States of America.”

Despite the rocky beginning of the Affordable Care Act’s first-ever open enrollment period, Sebelius successfully breathed life into the law. The act that was signed into law in 2010 was the nation’s biggest step in a half-century toward greater health care equity. Over the time between passage and the first enrollments of what grew to be millions of people, Sebelius was tireless in her mission to turn an abstract piece of legislation into actual coverage.

The voices of opposition to the ACA were loud, and opponents were quick to point out the flaws in the website’s rollout. But those of us who understand the enormity of the social change she helped bring about will remember this success as her legacy.

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