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Health secretary resigns after rocky HealthCare.gov rollout

Sebelius’ resignation comes as the White House seeks to rebound from the politically damaging launch of health care law

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is resigning from her position after the rocky rollout of the website for President Barack Obama's signature health care law, Al Jazeera confirmed Thursday.

Her resignation comes just one week after the end of the first enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act, often called "Obamacare." While the opening weeks of the rollout were marred by website woes, the administration rebounded strongly by enrolling more than 7 million people in new insurance marketplaces.

According to a statement released by a spokesman for HHS, "From her work on Head Start to expanding mental health coverage to advancing cutting-edge health care research and, of course, her unwavering leadership in implementing the Affordable Care Act, Secretary Sebelius often calls her work here the most meaningful of her life. As she closes this chapter, Secretary Sebelius is extremely thankful to President Obama and very proud of the historic accomplishments of this administration."

Sebelius, a former governor of Kansas, told Obama in early March she wanted to leave the administration, according to Reuters.

"She believed that once open enrollment ended, it would be the right time to transition the department to new leadership," an official said. 

Sebelius dropped no hints about her resignation Thursday when she testified at a budget hearing.

Sebelius' resignation after five years in Obama's Cabinet comes as the White House seeks to rebound from the politically damaging launch of the health care law. But it 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.

A White House official said Obama was nominating Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, to replace Sebelius. The official was not authorized to discuss Sebelius' resignation ahead of the formal announcement Friday morning and requested anonymity.

Sebelius is one of six Obama Cabinet members who remain from the beginning of the administration, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder.

A former Democratic Kansas governor, Sebelius previously served as her state's insurance commissioner. She wasn't the first choice for the post, but she was one of the highest profile Democratic female officeholders to endorse Obama over Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries.

The White House had wanted former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, but his nomination fell before reports that he owed $140,000 in back taxes.

Sebelius' nomination was announced on Feb. 28, 2009, and she was confirmed two months later. As part of her brief, she oversaw Medicare and Medicaid, both programs administered by HHS. 

She 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 a parent's insurance plan until age 26 and expanding mental health coverage to include rehabilitation and other outpatient services.

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. 

In the months before the exchanges opened, Sebelius assured lawmakers and the public that new health insurance markets would open on time in all 50 states. After technical problems crippled online sign-ups after the Oct. 1 launch — only six people signed up on the first day — the White House sent management expert and longtime Obama adviser Jeffrey Zients to oversee a rescue operation that turned things around by the end of November.

Sebelius took full responsibility for the problems even though others played a role in the construction of the federal website HealthCare.gov.

Also under Sebelius, 3 million lower-income Americans enrolled in the Medicaid program. That brings to more than 10 million the number of people who have signed up for public or private health coverage since the Oct. 1 launch of the Affordable Care Act. The current figures include people who qualify for Medicaid programs that have existed for decades, but it seems the health care law is the reason behind many of the new enrollees: Medicaid enrollment has been brisker in states that are expanding the program — with a rate 8.3 percent higher than before Oct. 1, compared with 1.6 percent in nonexpansion states.

Yet the health care law continues to be potentially politically damaging for the Obama administration. A recent national survey found that 64 percent of Republican-registered voters said a candidate's stance on the health care law would be very important in their voting decision, compared with 52 percent of Democrats and 45 percent of independents.

The national survey by the Pew Research Center and USA Today, conducted April 3 through 6 among 1,010 adults, found more continue to disapprove (50 percent) than approve (37 percent) of the 2010 health care law. Last month the balance of opinion was similar, with 53 percent disapproving of the law and 41 percent approving.

Sixty percent of voters who oppose the health care law said a candidate's stance on the measure would be very important to their vote, compared with 48 percent of voters who support the law.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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