Sebelius on national damage-control tour over Obamacare Web site

Melinda Henneberger
Reporter October 25, 2013

Maybe an uninsured tennis pro offering to give Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius some help with her game wasn’t quite the Obamacare poster person you imagined the administration would put front and center at a PR event here Friday.

But think again, because as the cameras rolled, that’s just who Sebelius watched sign up for coverage at a community clinic. “It’s synchronicity,’’ David Caramanidis, 46, told the secretary. “I get to meet you, and I can fix your backhand.”

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011. View Archive

She laughed easily while chatting with Caramanidis and the other Texans she met on this leg of her national damage-control tour, after the wildly rocky rollout of HealthCare.gov. But she also continued to repeat talking points that didn’t work the first time we heard them, or the second.

The Web site where Americans can sign up for coverage is getting better every day, she said once again. (In fact, it’s now working well enough that her artist son, 29, was able to sign up for coverage Friday: Yesterday, he’d tried and failed, she reported, but this morning he had called and told her “he got on and it took him 12 minutes” to sign up, although he hasn’t yet picked a plan.)

She also repeated that line about how “in football terms it’s still early in the first quarter,” with plenty of time left to sign up before penalties would be called on those who don’t get coverage.

Again and again, jargon got in her way, as when she said that she hoped the problems would be fixed by the end of November: “That’s the target for optimal flow-through.” Or when she acknowledged some of the problems that have plagued the site: “We’ve had some functionality as low as three in 10 making it all the way through the system.”

Nor did she seem to feel that the less said about the tennis pro, the better. “I was earlier today with a tennis pro who has not had health insurance for 15 years,” she told the crowd at a another event later in the day, in San Antonio, and he “is thrilled with his options.”

Her many friends note that it isn’t as though Sebelius herself wrote the code for HealthCare.gov or even ran the tests. But given the stakes, the unhappy history of previous government tech launches and the disconnect between her promises that everything was on track and the reality that it wasn’t? Those do add up to a communications disaster with her name on it.

Did no one prep her for Tuesday’s CNN interview with Sanjay Gupta in which she said the administration is bringing in the “A” team, as if the junior varsity had been in the game before? Or tell her to for heaven’s sake stop responding to questions with, “Well, the good news is . . . ” This is not the time for glass-half-full cheerleading or “It’s early in the first quarter” sports metaphors, but for restoring trust with serious and specific answers.

Even some allies are horrified that she hasn’t supplied those yet. “She couldn’t sell Count Chocula to a 5-year-old,” complained Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for National Catholic Reporter who strongly supports Obamacare.

The former Kansas governor does, though, inspire great loyalty in those who know her well. Sometimes, officials in trouble find that their colleagues and associates have suddenly gone missing — they’re out of the country, maybe, or just too darn swamped to talk to reporters. Those who know Sebelius, on the other hand, are eager to stand by her. Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association called from India to tell me that Sebelius had always been willing to discuss every concern she ever had in detail, and Nancy Pelosi also made time to defend her friend.

In a phone interview Friday, the House minority leader said she’d spoken to Sebelius earlier in the day “and she’s very confident” and just needs to keep doing exactly what she is doing.

Is sales, then, exactly what she should be doing? “She’s not swabbing the deck,’’ Pelosi answered. “She’s guiding the ship,” as someone who helped write the law, drawing on her background as her state’s insurance commissioner. “I’m dazzled by the smooth way all the other things have been implemented,” Pelosi said, referring, for instance, to the provision that adult children could stay on their parents’ insurance policies until age 26. And Sebelius, her friend said, is unfazed by the criticism: “She knows how great she is. We are professionals, we get attacked all the time.”

Pelosi and Sebelius have more than that in common, actually, as graduates of the formerly all-female Trinity Washington University, as strongly pro-choice Catholics and as the daughters of successful politicians. (The secretary’s father, former Ohio governor John J. Gilligan, died in August.)

In politics and all of life, expectations matter, and given the problems with rollouts of previous, far less complicated programs such as Medicare Part D, the secretary’s frequent assurances that signing up for Obamacare was going to be easy-peasy — point, click and done — work against her now.

Maybe valid complaints about the rollout weren’t taken as seriously as they should have been after years of nonstop partisan complaints.

Still, it’s up to Sebelius to salvage public confidence in the long-sought law that’s going to be her legacy, as well as the president’s and Pelosi’s.

As she would say, the good news is that people who need health insurance probably aren’t too concerned with her messaging flubs. “The people themselves are very excited,’’ said Quiara Sherrard, chief revenue officer for CommuniCare health centers, who came to hear Sebelius speak in San Antonio. “They’ve never had insurance before, so they mainly want to know how premiums and co-pays and deductibles work.” There are lots of potential customers in Texas, which has the country’s highest percentage of uninsured. One of every four Texans has no coverage in the home state of leading Obamacare critics Ted Cruz and Rick Perry.

Sebelius is absolutely not resigning, she said. She’ll be sticking around and hoping to prove her critics wrong. “It’s the most important work I’ve done in my life,” she said.

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