Safe for now? Why Sebelius is unlikely to be axed after Obamacare mess

Critics calling for the ouster of Kathleen Sebelius after Obamacare’s clumsy online rollout are unlikely to get their wish any time soon.

If she were sacked, it would leave a crucial cabinet position vacant – and Republicans could use a confirmation fight to re-argue the merits of Obamacare. And many GOP leaders are already calling for her resignation after technical glitches made initial online registration nearly impossible for millions of Americans.

Another factor: Losing the Health and Human Services secretary would leave the agency without a leader when it is under intense pressure to fix flaws in the website before Dec. 15 – the last day for Americans to enroll for coverage that begins on the first of the year.


“The idea of her resigning is silly,” says Jay Angoff, the former head of implementation for Obamacare insurance reforms at HHS and now an attorney at Mehri and Skalet. “If she did, it would just make a bad situation worse. She has a wealth of institutional knowledge that no one else can match, and it wouldn’t make any sense.”

“From the standpoint of fixing these problems in the short term, it’s not clear that Secretary Sebelius resigning would make any difference, and right now the administration does need a visible point person to help explain what’s going on with the website, how it’s being addressed, and what people should be looking for to see progress that’s being made,” said Mark McClellan, who served as the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services during the rocky launch of the now-popular Medicare Part D. “Those are all things that she can still do.”

Any attempt to replace Sebelius would be meet with strong partisan resistance, led by those who have spent years attempting to dismantle the law.

“The White House is smart enough to know that if she steps aside or they ask her to resign, they will never get anybody else confirmed,” Sebelius’s sister Ellen told The New York Times.

The call of “Fire Sebelius” has been a growing applause line for some in the GOP since the Oct. 1 mess.

High-ranking House member and former vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan was the latest to call for her resignation Tuesday, when he joined Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli on a campaign conference call.

Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who led the most recent salvo in the fight to gut the health-care law, has said Sebelius “absolutely” must resign over the “disaster” of the Obamacare law. Republican Sen. Pat Roberts – Sebelius’ fellow Kansan and onetime friend – called for her resignation in a YouTube video, saying Sebelius “has had three and a half years to launch Obamacare, and she has failed.”

But others argue that, while those most directly responsible for the mechanics of the botched rollout should be shown the door, that doesn’t necessarily mean Sebelius herself.

“It’s not clear that somebody shouldn’t lose their job,” said Dr. Gail Wilensky, a health-care and welfare-reform adviser to President George H.W. Bush and former head of the Health Care Financing Administration. “But at this point I don’t think we know enough to say it should be Sebelius.”

Some of the most strident criticisms of Sebelius came after she declined to testify at a hearing on the rollout scheduled for Thursday, citing a scheduling conflict. But HHS announced on Monday that she will be appearing before the panel on Oct. 30.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Oct. 21, 2013. Gabriella Demczuk / Redux Pictures

Wilensky says that testimony will be critical to restoring faith in the department and Sebelius herself, who has been perceived as lacking transparency.

“There’s really a high level of strong mistrust and skepticism that the department has generated – and frankly, appropriately so,” she said. “They need to work very hard to dissipate that, and the only way to do that is to indicate a very different attitude and to be much more forthcoming.”

McClellan, the former Medicare administrator, says the success of the Affordable Care Act will depend far more on the quality of the insurance coverage than the enrollment process.

“If people – through either the website or through alternatives – are able to get coverage and they’re happy with the way that coverage is working in January, that’s going to be much more important for the American public and politically than the issues with the website right now,” he said.

Angoff, a Sebelius ally who spent three years at HHS, said the department must fix the website quickly to regain the confidence of the American people, and he argues that upcoming hearings about the Affordable Care Act rollout could be an optimal time to examine how the federal government uses private outside contractors.

“If the website is fixed – and there still is time to fix it – this first couple of weeks is going to be a footnote,” he said. “But they’ve just got to fix it.”

The White House is standing firmly by Sebelius, Obama’s HHS secretary since he took office in 2009. Last week, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Sebelius has “the full confidence of the president."

Asked during an interview with CNN whether she would consider resigning, Sebelius hinted that the administration has no interest in changing horses in midstream.

“I think my job is to get this fully implemented and to get the website working right,” she said. “That’s really what I’m focused on. I work at the pleasure of the president. He is singularly focused on making sure we deliver on this promise.”

NBC's Chuck Todd contributed to this report.