The ACA, Sebelius and the Cure

Let's move past the stubborn resistance to the cure of the ACA. Let's get over the thoughtless scapegoating of Kathleen Sebelius. Let the healing begin.
12/09/2013 10:56 am ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

My daughter's relationship status has changed, which will leave her without health insurance at year's end. She came home to Kansas for Thanksgiving, on break from a teaching residency. The day before the turkey feast, she sat at my computer and logged onto HealthCare.gov

I peered over her shoulder, as did her 16-year-old brother, while she navigated the user-friendly site without a hitch. In 45 minutes she enrolled herself with a policy that was eight dollars less and comparable to the one she has shared with her ex-partner.

Good news does not reverberate like bad news in the national echo chamber. The Affordable Care Act roll-out was plagued by bugs, certainly a commonplace experience with large-scale digital launches. Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, held herself accountable. As the website has improved, as evidenced by my daughter's positive experience, favorability ratings for Sebelius have also improved. According to the Nov. 27 U.S. News and World Report, a Rasmussen poll showed that 30 percent of respondents now view her favorably, up from 25 percent. Keep in mind that a quarter of respondents said they had not heard of her.

Sebelius, of course, is from my state of Kansas, where many of the almost three million residents refer to her by her first name. I met Kathleen when she was my state representative. She wore holes in her tennis shoes walking the sidewalks and ringing the doorbells of her constituents, asking about their concerns. She did this for the eight years she served in the Kansas legislature. She was a walking partner of my dear friend Emily and several of their two-mile, 6 a.m. walks, with coffee in hand, overlapped with mine. We were friendly acquaintances.

I watched her career as she was elected Kansas Insurance Commissioner. She was a shrewd and deft agency administrator. She was elected Governor, not once, but twice, in a heavily Republican state. The adjective commonly applied to Kathleen is "savvy."

Kathleen is an interesting mix of polished patrician -- her father was a congressman, then governor of Ohio -- and roll-up-the-sleeves public servant. Shortly after she was elected governor, I saw her at our neighborhood grocery store.

"Kathleen," I said, "you can't do your own grocery shopping now that you're governor!"

"I sure can," she said.

She has received grueling grillings on Capitol Hill. In her first appearance Oct. 30 before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, she was on the receiving end of this parochial put-down about her adopted state from Congressman Joe Barton of Texas: "There is a famous movie called 'The Wizard of Oz,' and in 'The Wizard of Oz,' there was a great line. Dorothy, at some point in the movie, turns to her little dog Toto and says, 'Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.' Well, Madam Secretary, while you're from Kansas, we're not in Kansas anymore."

Most Kansans would grimace at this flaunting of flaming cliché.

A month before her late father died this past August, Kathleen gave a speech at the 104th NAACP Conference. She likened the resistance to the Affordable Care Act to that faced by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Kathleen said: "My father was a Congressman from Cincinnati who voted for each of those critical civil rights laws ... The same arguments against change, the same fear and misinformation that opponents used then are the same ones opponents are spreading now."

Lots of people have been saying that the political divide in the United States is greater than it has been at any time since the Civil War. Harvard historian Jill Lepore wrote in a recent New Yorker article about the methods of measuring polarization: "Political scientists analyzing ... data ... claim that voters and legislators alike are more polarized today than they have been at any time since the Confederacy seceded."

That this divide occurs as we are being served by our first African-American president does not seem coincidental. Obstructing so-called Obamacare and criticizing its architects does not substitute for creative governing.

As for Kansas and the ACA, a recent informative speaker at Washburn University, Sheldon Weisgrau, pointed out that whether you love it or hate it, the ACA is the law. Kansas did not agree to set up a health exchange, so it joins other red states, like Texas, he said, in inviting the federal government into the state to run the insurance marketplace. There are 360,000 uninsured in Kansas, or 14 percent of the population under 65, better than the national average. Politicians who wish to use Texas as a model should look askance at the 25 percent uninsured citizens of Texas, Weisgrau warned.

I have often quipped that we do have universal health care in the U.S., it just occurs in the emergency room. We all pay for this in higher hospital and medical procedure costs. Weisgrau underscored this point, saying we haven't had health care in our country, we've had "emergency care." Emergency care is expensive, and not preventive.

When I asked the speaker how he thought Kathleen Sebelius had navigated the ACA, the audience laughed. But had she not been forced to spend so much time stumping for a law that had been passed by Congress, okayed by the Supreme Court, and ratified by the last presidential election, she might have been more on top of the roll-out.

Like many Americans without much money, I had no health insurance until I turned 31, my daughter's age. At that time one could pay one's medical bills. Now I am one year away from qualifying for Medicare, which as the speaker pointed out, is universal health care for our senior citizens.

I'm glad my daughter will have continued health insurance coverage into 2014. A professional dancer, she could be bankrupted by a broken bone. The number one reason for personal bankruptcy, as Weisgrau pointed out, is medical debt.

Let's move past the stubborn resistance to the cure of the ACA. Let's get over the thoughtless scapegoating of Kathleen Sebelius. Let the healing begin.