A Tribute to Dr. King

By Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services
January 17, 2011

As we remember Dr. King and celebrate his legacy this week, we also recognize the change that he set in motion and that continues to this day. With courage and vision, Dr. King moved a nation, and we are a better, stronger, and freer America today as a result.

Yet the work of building a more just and equitable society that Dr. King made his life’s great cause is not done. We still have a long way to go, especially when it comes to reducing health disparities, what Dr. King once called “the most shocking and inhumane" form of injustice.

We know that despite the progress we’ve made in the last 40 years, African-Americans and other minority-Americans are still less likely to get the preventive care they need to stay healthy.  They’re more likely to suffer from a serious illness like diabetes or heart disease. And when they do get sick, they have less access to the treatments and medicines they need to get better.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a first of its kind analysis highlighting health disparities by sex, race and ethnicity, income, education, disability status and other social characteristics in the U.S. It includes findings that show, for example, that Hispanics and African-Americans are more likely to be uninsured. American Indians and Alaska Natives are twice as likely to die in car crashes as any other group. And Mexican-Americans are the least successful at controlling their blood pressure.

Disparities like these carry a steep cost for these communities. When the average African-American child born today will live five fewer years than the average white child, with a greater likelihood of illness, we are still falling far short of Dr. King’s vision.

But in the last year, we have made great progress.  With the passage of the new health care law, the Affordable Care Act we took the most important step to reduce racial and ethnic health disparities that our nation has seen in the last 40 years.

Under the new law, we’re expanding coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans, many of them from minority communities where people are more likely to lack health insurance.

We’re ending the worst abuses of insurance companies like turning away children with pre-existing conditions, a practice that was especially harmful for minority groups with high rates of chronic disease.

And we’re investing in prevention to make sure all Americans can get certain recommended screenings, and vaccinations that help them stay healthy.

But we also know that it doesn’t matter whether you have health insurance if you can’t get a doctor’s appointment. And it’s hard to take control of your health care if you don’t have a primary care provider to answer your questions.

So the new law also makes a historic investment in our primary care workforce to bring more doctors and nurses to underserved communities.

We’re expanding community health centers to provide high-quality, accessible care to those most vulnerable and promoting the use of more lay-health educators or community health workers or promoters – who can support the most hard-to-reach communities.

We’re expanding initiatives to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of health care professionals and strengthening cultural competency training for health care providers.

And for all of these reforms to be most effective, we need to be able to know where we’re making progress and where we have work left to do. That’s why the new law invests in data collection and research about health disparities.

I cannot think of a more fitting tribute to Dr. King’s legacy, than to continue this work to make sure every American can live a healthy and fulfilling life.

Dr. King dreamed of a country in which every child, no matter where they were born or who their parents were or what color their skin was, had the chance to reach their full potential.

On this anniversary, I want to join the rest of my fellow Americans in rededicating ourselves to the essential work of moving our country forward toward this ideal.