Former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius didn’t mince words when asked about the direction of Kansas politics during an event Thursday night at the Dole Institute of Politics.
Making one of her first Kansas public appearances since stepping down in June as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Sebelius called the re-election of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback “a low point” in the state’s political history.
“Every time I think it can’t get any worse, it does,” Sebelius said in an apparent reference to the deepening budget crisis triggered by tax cuts and plummeting revenues. “So, I hesitate to say ‘how low can you go.’”
The Democrat, whose final months at HHS were marred by the problem-plagued rollout of the health reform law, was especially critical of Brownback’s recent decision to rescind an executive order that she issued to protect state employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation or sexual identity.
Sebelius said she signed the order in 2007 to “send a strong signal that we wanted a talented and diverse workforce.” She said she had “no idea” what compelled Brownback to repeal a policy that had been in place for eight years and “seemed to be working well.”
“It’s distressing,” she continued. “But I think we need to be clear to people around the United States, this is not Kansas. This is not what the state was founded on. This is not what we believe in. And this is not an acceptable policy going forward.”
In the statement explaining his decision, Brownback said Sebelius’ order inappropriately gave state employees protections not enjoyed by other citizens. Rescinding the order, he said, “ensures that state employees enjoy the same civil rights as all Kansans without creating additional protected classes.”
In addition, Brownback said, decisions to extend additional civil rights protections should be made by the Legislature, not “through unilateral action” by a governor.
Sebelius’ comments about Kansas politics came in response to questions from members of an overflow audience that turned out for the first in a series of lectures on women in politics at the institute on the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence. For most of the evening, the former governor chatted with Bill Lacy, the institute’s director, about her experiences as a woman in politics, her relationship with President Barack Obama and the political and executive challenges she faced during her career.
When technical problems with a microphone delayed the start of the conversation, a relaxed Sebelius quipped, “Kind of the like the website,” a reference to well-publicized troubles with the healthcare.gov website at its launch.
Sebelius said the early days of the rollout and the final days of the lobbying effort for the ACA were among her most challenging as secretary.
“We had a lot of near-death experiences,” she said of the days leading up to the vote in Congress. “There were lots of times when it seemed like it was all going down the tubes.”
Even when the bill’s prospects seemed bleak, Sebelius said, President Obama resisted calls to pare back the bill and compromise to save political face.
“He kept saying, ‘If there’s a chance for a comprehensive bill, this is the time,’” she recalled.
In a brief interview after the program, Sebelius said she believes the ACA will survive because by the time President Obama leaves office, tens of millions of Americans will have come to depend on it for health insurance. In addition, she said, it will be difficult to reverse the changes the law has made in the health care system.
“I think the framework is now kind of in the DNA of the health system in a way that will be very difficult to turn back,” she said.
While making no predictions, Sebelius said, she finds it “hard to believe” that the U.S. Supreme Court will side in an upcoming case with those who contend that Congress intended to make ACA tax credits available to consumers only in states that set up their own marketplaces.
“To have that available only to a certain portion of the population seems ludicrous,” she said.
Kansas is one of several states that declined to establish its own online marketplace, forcing consumers to use one set up by the federal government. More than 80 percent of Kansans who selected plans during the current enrollment period have qualified for tax credits that lower the cost of their premiums, according to HHS.
Finally, Sebelius said Kansas’ refusal to expand Medicaid has deprived tens of thousands of low-income Kansans of coverage they need.
“Folks who are in states not expanding Medicaid are in terrible trouble,” she said.
Brownback and GOP legislative leaders opposed to participating in expansion have said they’re concerned the federal government will not fulfill its obligation to pay 100 percent of expansion costs for three years and no less than 90 percent thereafter.
Sebelius said those concerns are unfounded.
“The bill is fully paid for even if all 50 states come in,” she said.
State officials who continue to have doubts, she said, could protect themselves by including language in their plans that automatically returns eligibility to pre-expansion levels if federal funding dips below the 90 percent threshold.
“Lots of states have said, ‘If the deal changes, we’re out,’” Sebelius said. “And we’ve said from the beginning, ‘That’s just fine.’”