I first saw Kathleen Sebelius in action in the spring of 1995 at a NAIC Midwest Zone Retreat in Springfield, Illinois. I was the Deputy Commissioner for Health Issues at the Indiana Department of Insurance and she had been elected Kansas Insurance Commissioner a few months earlier, but she already had a grasp on the job and the air of a leader. Sure, by that time, she had already served four terms in the Kansas House of Representatives, but the office of Insurance Commissioner was her first statewide elected office and she was handling it like a pro.
Fast forward to July of 1997 and, as a newly appointed insurance commissioner, I attended new commissioner training at NAIC headquarters in Kansas City. Commissioner Sebelius was the speaker for the session that dealt with administrative challenges. She described walking into the Kansas Department of Insurance on her first day and immediately noticing a lack of gender diversity and an absence of racial diversity. She explained how she addressed those situations and others to make her Department function better and her employees more happy to be there. I also learned that she did not accept campaign contributions from insurance companies when she ran for commissioner. It was at that time that I decided that she was someone I wanted to get to know.
Because commissioners are seated alphabetically by state at NAIC meetings, I was seated near Commissioner Sebelius and, recognizing that we were kindred spirits, she mentored me as I learned the intricacies of the NAIC power structure. We even teamed up to get a meeting moved from the San Francisco Marriott when a service workers union wrote to commissioners months before the meeting to tell us they would be picketing the hotel at the time our meeting was scheduled to be held. Sebelius was president of the NAIC at that time and I broached the subject with her knowing that, like me, she would not want to cross the picket line. As it turned out, there were enough other commissioners who shared our concerns and we were able to win a vote to move the meeting.
As president of the NAIC she was a breath of fresh air as she subtly, yet effectively introduced the membership to new ideas. Our brethren to the right complained for years afterward that she brought Jesse Jackson in to speak to us (although, as I recall, they all got their picture taken with him), but it was a good move because Rev. Jackson talked to us about the financial potential of inner cities and how the people there shouldn’t be ignored — something we all needed to hear.
Our paths as commissioners crossed outside of the NAIC as well when she blocked one of my major domestic insurers, Anthem, from purchasing Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas, the state’s largest insurer. I secretly applauded that move and was glad that, as an elected commissioner, she had both the will and the chutzpah to stand up to the Anthem behemoth. One of the Anthem executives, furious that she had refused his company’s wishes, mistakenly thought I sympathized with their plight and said to me, “The Kansas courts are Republican. We’ll get it done there.” Well, apparently, the Kansas courts were no more sympathetic to their desires than Commissioner Sebelius had been and they upheld her decision.
These are just a few of the examples I observed over the years of Commissioner Sebelius’ talent for recognizing the best outcome for her constituents and working toward achieving that outcome. And, by all accounts, Governor Sebelius was every bit as innovative and effective as Commissioner Sebelius was. So, in 2009, I was very happy to hear the news that President Obama had appointed her to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. The fact that she was heading the agency provided impetus for me to commute back and forth from D.C. to Indianapolis for nearly two years to be a part of the Affordable Care Act implementation.
Knowing the players, I doubt very seriously that Secretary Sebelius was responsible for the open enrollment start-up IT problems. However, also knowing her work ethic and professionalism, I’m not surprised that she took responsibility. She’s a person who can always be counted on to do the right thing, and to see situations in light of how they will affect the consumer, the citizen, the person who doesn’t have much of a voice in government matters.
As it turns out, she has presided over an open enrollment that exceeded all expectations and, more important, the implementation of the most dramatic – and, as she well knows, drastically needed – change in healthcare coverage we are likely to see in a long, long, time. So, I for one am sorry to see her go.
Sebelius brought to the Secretary position a resume and record of performance that will be difficult to match by future nominees, and the ability to face with grace and dignity vicious, ill-intentioned attacks by politically-motivated Members of Congress. But, most important, she brought to the position the character and commitment to perform honorably – something that’s all too rare in government officials at any level.