Kathleen Sebelius resigned as Secretary of Health and Human Services last week. No sooner had this story been leaked than the Inside-the-Beltway pile-on commenced. "Sebelius Resigns After Troubles Over Health Site" blared the front page of The New York Times. "Sebelius Resigns After Flawed Roll-Out Of Health-Care Site" read The Washington Post, which accompanied this lede with a file photo of a grim looking Ms. Sebelius at one of the many Congressional hearings she testified at. Over at NPR, her tenure was described as having been marred by the "calamitous" roll-out of healthcare.gov. And these were the alleged bastions of "liberal" media. I won't even get into the characterizations or claims made by the myriad forms of conservative media that have done everything in their power to demonize and destroy the nation's effort at making health care available to more Americans.
Of course, the Affordable Care Act was always about far more than a website; it was about, among other things, expanding access to Medicaid and CHIP, closing the so-called "donut hole" in Medicare D (something created back in 2005 when Republicans rammed through that massive piece of legislation), barring insurance companies from rejecting people with pre-existing conditions, allowing young adults to stay on their parents' health plans until the age of 26, offering free preventative care, providing greater oversight of billing and treatment of patients to encourage better, not more expensive, practices, and on and on. And this was done while Republicans in Congress, the conservative megaphone that is talk radio, and the seamier parts of the right wing blogosphere were doing everything in their power to convince people "Obamacare" was the second coming of the anti-Christ. In addition to the millions of Americans who now have access to coverage, the ACA has begun to slow the growth of health care spending, something that will accrue to the government's bottom line in the future (and something Republicans and the media claim to care about - their jihad against budget deficits only arises when a Democrat is in the White House).
But even if one were to fixate on the roll-out of healthcare.gov, the hyperbolic headlines in the papers and the derision heaped on Ms. Sebelius on cable TV was well out of balance with the underlying story. While no one doubts the missteps in launching the website six months ago, the problem was fixed quickly. Indeed, in the past few months, the only stories one finds about the website had to do with how well it was working and how many people were accessing it to enroll in the individual market. Ultimately, the number of people who enrolled surpassed the estimates provided by the CBO before the flawed website launch last fall.
Few in the media have experience implementing policy, much less the most complicated public policy in the last 50 years, so it is unsurprising that they reflexively reached for the "bungled website" trope to frame Ms. Sebelius's resignation; but when they lament cynicism in government and why young people may not think public service is a noble pursuit, they should look to the shabby treatment they accorded Ms. Sebelius for an answer. In the meantime, Kathleen Sebelius should leave Washington, D.C. with her head held high. She oversaw the implementation of a law that is already benefiting millions of people and will help millions more in the future - an accomplishment those who mock her could only dream of ever achieving.