The announced nomination for a new secretary of Health and Human Services turned into an Obamacare pep rally in the Rose Garden Friday.
“The Affordable Care Act is the most significant social change in this country in that 50-year period of time,” outgoing HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said, comparing it with the Great Society programs of Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start, which her father John Gilligan voted for as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Ohio.
Obama announced the nomination of Sylvia Matthews Burwell, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, to replace Sebelius.
Sebelius has been a lighting rod for criticism since Obamacare shakily opened for enrollment last October, prompting elected officials and commentators to call for her resignation. She is leaving the post just as the administration has asserted that more than 7 million people have signed up on the health care exchanges. But the White House event celebrated her tenure.
Sebelius, who lost a page from her prepared remarks, insisted she was proud of her role establishing the health care law.
“I got to be the leader of HHS during the most historic of times,” Sebelius said, with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden standing beside her. “We are on the front lines of a long overdue national change, fixing a broken health system. Now, this is the most meaningful work that I have ever been a part of, and in fact, it is the cause of my life.”
Obama said Sebelius told him in early March she wanted to resign at the end of the first open enrollment period for Obamacare.
“And after five years of extraordinary service to the country, and 7.5 million Americans have signed for coverage through the exchanges, she has earned that right,” Obama said. “What Kathleen will go down in history for is serving as the secretary of Health and Human Services when the United States of America finally declared the quality of affordable health care is not a privilege, but it is a right for every single citizen of these United States of America.”
Obama said that he and Sebelius have “bumps and bruises” from the rocky start of Obamacare where people were unable to enroll on the troubled website. But he then used a sport analogy to declare victory.
“We lost the first quarter of open enrollment period with the problems of healthcare.gov, and there were problems, but under Kathleen’s leadership, her team at HHS turned the corner, got it fixed, got the job done, and the final score speaks for itself,” Obama said. “There are million people across the country that have the security of health insurance, and most of them for the very first time, and that is because of the woman standing next to me here today, and we are proud of her for that.”
Burwell, who was confirmed unanimously for OMB director, spoke briefly Friday. The unanimous confirmation in 2013 is not necessary a guarantee of a smooth confirmation to a critical cabinet post overseeing the controversial health care law during an election year.
Burwell said that if confirmed, she will “look forward to carrying on the important work of insuring that children, families and seniors have the building blocks of healthy lives.”