Former HHS Sec. Kathleen Sebelius at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Friday, June 27, 2014. Credit: Courtesy / Aspen Institute

ASPEN – Kathleen Sebelius, whose five-year tenure as Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Obama ended on June 9, conceded Friday at the Aspen Ideas Festival that the rollout of the website this spring could have gone better.

“I sure made some mistakes along the way, in terms of focusing on some things and not on others,” Sebelius said in response to a question from the audience about leadership.

“I was terrified, as we looked at the roll-out of the health plan, that we wouldn’t have a market. That was my biggest focus and fear. And I spent a lot of time and energy with insurers, with consumers, and with my old colleagues at the insurance commissioners’ offices, trying to make sure we actually had companies who came in to the market.

“Too little time, clearly, on the technology side,” she said, “on making sure that what I was hearing was actually accurate and getting enough eyes and ears on that.”

Sebelius also said there was “very ugly beta testing along the way” during the roll-out and that it was a “rocky, flawed eight-week period.”

On the other hand, she pointed out that a new insurance market was duly opened and eight million people ended up enrolling, which beat the administration’s target.

Yet Sebelius took the political fall for the rocky roll-out and announced her resignation in April. Sylvia Mathews Burwell took over the HHS post this month.

But Sebelius remains proud of Obamacare.

“There are now 22 million people with affordable coverage thanks to the Affordable Care Act, and that’s a big deal and that number will grow,” Sebelius said. “The cost story is even more dramatic. Costs in health care are rising at the lowest level in 50 years, and that’s not just in the private insurance market.”

She said Medicare costs were rising at about 6 percent a year in the nine years before Obamacare, and they are now increasing at 2 percent a year.

“It changes the economics of this country,” she said.

Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of The Aspen Institute, with Kathleen Sebelius, on Friday, June 27, 2014 at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Credit: Photo from: / The Aspen Institute

Opposition to Obamacare personal?

Sebelius spoke Friday morning at the closing session of “Spotlight Health,” which was presented under the Aspen Ideas Festival umbrella and served as a three-and-a-half day soft opening for the main Ideas Festival, which opened Friday afternoon.

The event runs until mid-day Thursday, July 3, on the Aspen Institute’s campus in the West End and also includes a number of events in downtown locations open to the public.

Walter Isaacson, the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, interviewed Sebelius on Friday. He asked her whether it was a failure of leadership that the Obamacare vote was so severely split on party lines.

Sebelius, who was twice elected governor of Kansas before joining the Obama administration in April 2009, replied that she kept thinking the intense opposition to Obamacare would end — if not when the law was passed, then when the Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional, or surely when President Obama was overwhelmingly re-elected.

“Didn’t happen,” she said. “So I’ve never really seen anything like this in my life, where it is very personal, it’s very specific to this president, and healthcare, I think, is the way that a lot of adversaries have decided they would try to block and stop him when they could not win the election, when they didn’t win the court case, and that continues on.”

“You’re saying that the opposition to the Affordable Care Act is personally a dislike for Barack Obama?” Isaacson asked.

“It’s a dislike for, I would say, his number one policy initiative,” Sebelius said. “But if you recall, again, go back a few years, (Senate Minority) Leader McConnell said his most important job — his most important job — in the United States Senate was making sure there were no wins for this president.”

Sebelius later tweaked Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky by pointing out that Kentucky’s state health insurance program, the Kentucky Health Connector, now has 450,000 people enrolled in it and many of them had no health care before.

“Recently Mitch McConnell said he is all for repealing Obamacare. He thinks it’s terrible, the worst thing that’s ever happened,” Sebelius said. “But he thinks the Kentucky Connector should stay in place.”

“Would the Kentucky Connector exist without the Affordable Care Act?” Isaacson asked.

“Absolutely not,” Sebelius said. “It is Obamacare!”

She also said it was wrong for some Republican governors to “play politics with people’s lives” by refusing to enroll in federal Medicaid programs, pointing out that in Texas 25 percent of people still do not have health insurance.

But in Massachusetts, 98 percent of people have insurance, Sebelius noted.

“Thanks to Governor Romney,” Isaacson said.

“You bet,” Sebelius said. “RomneyCare works. Who knew?”

Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, and Kathleen Sebelius, at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Friday, June 27, 2014. Credit: Photo from: / Aspen Institute

Looking ahead

Isaacson noted it is the 10th anniversary of the Aspen Ideas Festival, and so one theme of this year’s conference is to look ahead 10 years to 2024.

When asked what Obamacare would look like by then, Sebelius said she hoped certain provisions of the law would be locked in by December 2016.

“I’m sorry, locked in by 2016, meaning before he leaves office?” Isaacson asked, referring to President Obama.

“You bet,” she said.

“You worried that Hillary will reverse it?” Isaacson quipped.

“My guess is that she’ll step on the gas,” Sebelius said. “But, you know, there are uncertainties in this world.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is slated to be interviewed by Isaacson at the Ideas Festival on Monday, as part of an “Afternoon of Conservation” that also includes former Vice President Al Gore and former CIA Director David Patraeus.

Others expected to speak at this year’s Ideas Festival include Tony Blair, Katie Couric, Robert DeNiro, Michael Eisner, Timothy Geithner, Newt Gingrich, John Hickenlooper, Arianna Huffington, Andrea Mitchell, Moby, Grover Norquist, Ted Olson, Penny Pritzker, Robert Reich, and Lawrence Summers.

Local speakers this year include Chris Lane, CEO of ACES, Alan Fletcher, President and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School, Pete McBride, a photographer and filmmaker from Basalt, and Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, CEO and director of the Aspen Art Museum.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is a local nonprofit news organization collaborating with the Aspen Daily News on coverage of the Aspen Ideas Festival. The Daily News published this story on Friday, June 28, 2014.

Brent Gardner-Smith

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...