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Kathleen Sebelius Talks Obamacare, Ebola, and Public Service

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

On October 28, the former Secretary of Health and Human Services visited Tufts as part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series.

Tisch College Dean Alan Solomont with Kathleen Sebelius

Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius grew up in a political family that instilled in her, almost from infancy, an understanding of the vital nature of public service.

“My father ran for office for the first time when I was five. He was a city councilman, he was a Congressman, he was Governor,” she says. “I really thought what families did in the Fall was go door to door and put up yard signs; nobody ever told me it was a voluntary activity. And I kind of grew up with that sense that that was a great way to participate in community life and to make a difference.”

A Life in Public Service

From that childhood in Cincinnati as the daughter of Ohio Governor Jack Gilligan, to the past few years as Secretary of HHS during the contentious battle over the Affordable Care Act, that sense of civic duty and desire to make a difference has guided Sebelius’s life. On October 28, the former Secretary visited Tufts University as part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series and spoke about topics as varied as Ebola, healthcare policy, and the importance of being an active citizen.

While Sebelius is mostly known as the former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a position she held from 2009 to June of this year, she had already enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a public servant before she joined President Obama’s cabinet. Sebelius served for four terms as a member of the Kansas House of Representatives, spent eight years as the elected State Insurance Commissioner of Kansas, and was the state’s Governor from 2003 to 2009.

Asked by Tisch College Dean Alan D. Solomont—who moderated Sebelius’ talk in an interview-style format—how she managed to win the governorship twice, by large margins, as a Democrat in a largely Republican state, Sebelius showed off her quick wit: “I got more votes,” she said.

On a more serious note, she credited the lessons learned from her father, who had also been a Democratic governor in a conservative state, and from her other political hero: Robert F. Kennedy.

“It’s important in political life, or really any life, to have a bottom line of where you won’t go and to have principles that are really fundamental,” said Sebelius.

The Obamacare Fight

The former Secretary went on to describe how, in the early stages of his second term, President Obama made clear that passing comprehensive health care reform would be just one of those principles, even in the face of the economic crisis and of strident opposition from members of his own inner circle.

“He said, consistently, ‘you cannot fix the economy without fixing healthcare’ and I think he believed that very strongly,” she said. “He also was compelled personally. His mother died prematurely of cancer. She did not have health insurance, off-and-on, during her life, and he talked about watching her fight with insurance companies over her healthcare needs, and I think that had a searing impact on him.”

Given the herculean efforts from the President and key lawmakers like Nancy Pelosi, Sebelius described being mortified by the technical problems with the website launch that threatened to sink a vital part of the Affordable Care Act before it could even get going.

“It was terrifying, and I don’t think we even knew how bad things were in the opening 36 hours” she said. “The notion that we might have to tell the president we’d have to scrap the whole thing was not good.”

After eight weeks of work, the site was up and running again, and in the year since, 12 million Americans have acquired insurance through the marketplace or through the law’s Medicare expansion. Still, ‘Obamacare remains publicly and politically unpopular, something Sebelius believes will change over time.

“I can guarantee you the parents who have their kids on their plan who known that this is a connection with Obamacare understand that this is a good deal; people who now have insurance who didn’t have it know it’s a good deal, and I think those numbers will grow,” she said.

Sebelius had a similar message about Ebola, another issue on which she trumps that the emerging facts trump political theater and rhetoric.

“Being guided by science, I think, is hugely important but very very hard in a situation like this because people are afraid,” said Sebelius about the recent controversy over mandatory quarantines for health workers returning from Ebola-afflicted nations. “I think it’s very dangerous when politicians begin promulgating guidelines not based on science, which is what’s happening now.”

Somebody’s Gotta Do It

Just as Sebelius began her talk by recalling how early she gained an appreciation for the value of civic life, she ended it by encouraging others to the same when she answered an important question from a Tufts undergraduate: Why, given the cynicism and scorn that Sebelius, herself, experienced in politics, should young people get involved?

“Well, because it makes a difference, and somebody’s going to make the decisions whether you get involved or not,” said Sebelius, adding that while politics is one part of civic engagement, there are also many other paths.

“Whether it’s running for office, being an active citizen in terms of debate and involvement, being engaged in your town council, or making a difference at the school PTA, those decisions made every day affect your life … and the more active engaged citizens are, the better those decisions are.“