WASHINGTON — The first, and perhaps most painful, call for Kathleen Sebelius to resign as President Barack Obama's health secretary came earlier this month from an old family friend: Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who once boasted of a "special relationship" with Sebelius, forged when he worked for her father-in-law.
Now Sebelius, the former Kansas governor and onetime insurance commissioner who is the public face of Obama's health care overhaul, is facing a barrage of criticism over the botched rollout of its online insurance exchange. For Republicans, still reeling from their failed "defund Obamacare" strategy, she has proved a convenient target.
Republicans insist the buck stops with the secretary. Sebelius runs the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency responsible for carrying out the far-reaching Affordable Care Act, but there are questions about how deeply she was involved in the development of the problem-plagued HealthCare.gov website.
The White House kept close tabs on the effort, with particular attention to the website's design, but managing the details of the software development was left to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which Sebelius oversees.
She testified on Capitol Hill this spring that the exchanges were "on track" to open Oct. 1, but those close to her say she has been far more immersed in developing policy related to the health care law than in its technical aspects.
House Republicans, including leaders of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which planned a hearing Thursday to examine issues related to the technical failures of the website, have demanded that she testify.
Sebelius' decision to leave Washington this week — she will attend a gala at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston tonight, then travel to promote the health care law in Phoenix; Austin, Texas; and San Antonio — caused an uproar among Republicans who said she had not explained why the website failed and how the government plans to fix it. (She will appear next week.)
"We've got lots of questions," said Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., chairman of the panel's health subcommittee. "Why would she mislead us so shortly before the rollout, when they were obviously not prepared and are still not prepared, and it's going to take a long time to fix the problem? We want to know how long she thinks it is going to take."
On Tuesday, Sebelius tried to provide some answers, at least in writing. In a blog post on her agency's website, she provided details of the "technology surge" promised by the White House to correct the site's deficiencies, and she named Jeffrey Zients, a management consultant and administration veteran with a history of resolving government technology issues, as leader of the effort. She said the administration also was bringing in "veterans from top Silicon Valley companies" and other experts to consult on the technology overhaul.
Although the widespread failure of the online insurance exchange has led many critics to call for her resignation, Sebelius' allies said she had no intention of stepping down.
"She has the president's confidence," White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said Tuesday. "And she knows that."
The secretary, who declined to be interviewed, has kept a low television profile, prompting questions about whether the White House was keeping her under wraps. She has taken questions at community events.
McDonough praised her as "tireless" in that effort. While he described the health secretary as the law's "chief implementer, with support from us," he would not discuss her work with respect to the website, saying she should answer those questions.