Before O-Care debacle, Sebelius made many trips to White House

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Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was in frequent contact with President Obama and senior White House aides before the disastrous launch of the federal ObamaCare exchange last year.

While Sebelius has said the president was not aware of HealthCare.gov’s problems, more than 750 pages of documents obtained by The Hill through a Freedom of Information Act request show she made scores of visits to the White House.

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The documents reveal that Sebelius met with or attended calls and events with Obama at least 18 times between Oct. 27, 2012, and Oct. 6, 2013, including at least seven instances in which the two were scheduled to discuss the new healthcare law, according to the secretary’s draft schedules. 

She had breakfast or lunch with Pete Rouse, considered one of Obama’s closest advisers, at least three times. Moreover, Sebelius had scheduled calls or meetings with Valerie Jarrett, an Obama confidante, and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough.

Sebelius also met with or had calls with Chris Jennings, then a White House senior healthcare adviser, at least seven times in the roughly yearlong period.

The schedules suggest Sebelius was an active White House presence in the months leading up to the botched rollout, and raise new questions about why Obama wouldn’t have known about the problems that were exposed on Oct. 1.

HHS said in a statement to The Hill that Sebelius is often on the White House grounds.

“She is frequently at the White House for meetings on a wide range of topics, including the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. As we have also said, the Affordable Care Act is more than just a website, and consistent with other significant policy initiatives, there was coordination across the Administration on a broad range of policy and implementation topics,” said the agency.

Since last fall, when lawmakers began calling for her ouster, Sebelius has maintained that Obama was in the dark about the glitches that plagued HealthCare.gov.

“No, sir,” Sebelius told CNN’s Sanjay Gupta on Oct. 22 when asked if the president knew of problems before the site’s launch.

Obama has similarly said that he wasn’t aware of any issues.

“On the website, I was not informed directly that the website would not be working the way it was supposed to. Had I been informed, I wouldn’t be going out saying, boy, this is going to be great,” Obama said in a Nov. 14 press conference.

HealthCare.gov was nearly unusable during its first month of existence, forcing Obama to appoint Jeff Zients to triage the website.

Now that the site is functioning smoothly and the enrollment drive appears to be gaining momentum — the Health Department on Wednesday said 3.3 million people have signed up for coverage so far — pressure on Obama to fire Sebelius has eased.

Still, the president dodged last week when asked point-blank by Fox’s Bill O’Reilly whether Sebelius should be axed.

“I promise you that we hold everybody up and down the line accountable, but when we are midstream, Bill, we want to make sure we our main focus is how do we make this thing work so people are able to sign up, and that is what we have done,” Obama said.

Sebelius is one of the only members left from Obama’s original Cabinet in 2009, and was handed the task of overhauling the healthcare system after Congress passed healthcare reform in 2010.

She has campaigned to build public support for ObamaCare through frequent media appearances, giving interviews to Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Women’s Health and Time magazines, according to her schedules.

The schedules show Sebelius also personally met with a handful of reporters in the run-up to the Oct. 1 ObamaCare launch.

She had coffee with former Washington Post reporter Ezra Klein on Aug. 2, and was part of a group of administration officials who met with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on April 23.

Less than a month later, the Times ran a Friedman column about how the number of healthcare information startups was evidence ObamaCare “already appears to be surprising on the upside.” Friedman said in the piece that HHS connected him with the companies he profiled.

A frequent media contact for Sebelius was Atul Gawande, who writes about healthcare for The New Yorker. She spoke with Gawande by phone at least three times.

“As has been widely reported, in the months leading up to open enrollment, Secretary Sebelius met with a broad range of individuals and stakeholders to help get the word out about enrollment, and to spotlight our education and outreach efforts,” said HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters.

One Democratic strategist said the media outreach is typical for a Cabinet secretary in charge of a massive program like ObamaCare.

“Reaching out and engaging opinion leaders to help to spread the message of the Affordable Care Act and to boost coverage is smart,” said Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist at SKDKnickerbocker. “It would be surprising if they weren’t engaging in a full-court public awareness campaign in support of the healthcare law.” 

Sebelius was also in contact with Obama operatives, meeting in her office last May with Jim Messina, who was campaign manager for Obama’s reelection bid. She also had a scheduled Jan. 8, 2013, meeting with “Mitch Steward” — likely Mitch Stewart — and Jeremy Bird, both former senior aides on the Obama campaign.

All three operatives are now involved with Organizing for Action, the pro-Obama group that has campaigned for the president’s agenda, including the healthcare law.

The records show Sebelius has kept in touch with a number of lawmakers, and had scheduled regular phone calls with Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), an architect of ObamaCare who famously warned last year of a “train wreck” in the implementation.

The schedules also reveal Sebelius’s efforts to persuade governors into accepting the expansion of Medicaid under the healthcare law. She spoke with 20 current governors, 10 of whom were Republicans, during the time period covered by the records.

Matt Salo, executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors, said Sebelius, as former governor of Kansas, played a big part in the administration’s sales pitch to the states.

“You have had a lot of states that were at ‘no’ but are now much closer to ‘yes’ than they were before,” Salo said. “None of that would be possible without her involvement in this.”