by Toby Sells
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was far away from tense Congressional chambers filled with pointed criticisms Friday as her Memphis visit felt at times more like a pep rally.
The secretary’s event at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library was a push to get residents enrolled in a health insurance plan in the one-month-old Health Insurance Marketplace.
The new, government-run health insurance “store” is a product of the Affordable Care Act. The marketplace has been a source of intense scrutiny this week by Republicans who have pointed to the failures of healthcare.gov, the marketplace’s online home, as a systemic failure of the health care law overall.
Sebelius took full responsibility and apologized to the country for the site’s failures in testimony Thursday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose members grilled her in sometimes-heated exchanges. The failures also account for a growing number of GOP leaders calling for Sebelius’ resignation.
But nearly 1,000 miles away from the halls of Congress, Sebelius was welcomed in Memphis to raucous applause, standing ovations, and local leaders calling her “our general” for health issues and a “warrior” for health care advocacy.
Sebelius first met with local stakeholders — politicians such as Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and Congressman Steve Cohen, public health officials, pastors, and CEOs - in the library’s Memphis Room. She then addressed a standing-room-only crowd of locals who had come to either hear the secretary speak or to get help signing up for health insurance.
She apologized again Friday for the “frustrating” process for those trying and failing to get health care at healthcare.gov. She also gave a tongue-in-cheek apology for the 2008 University of Kansas win over the University of Memphis in the NCAA championship, which happened when Sebelius was governor of Kansas.
Officials constantly reminded the crowd and the media that the marketplace is one month into a six-month open enrollment period, which ends March 31st. Wharton noted that critics lambasted the launch of the Social Security program, which is now considered essential to many.
Cohen said Republicans are using the Affordable Care Act to undermine and politically damage President Barack Obama and that nearly 88,000 Memphians will be eligible for coverage through the marketplace.