REMARKS BY:

TOMMY G. THOMPSON, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES

PLACE:

The Great Hall, Humphrey Building, Washington, D.C.

DATE:

July 13, 2004

40th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act

Thank you, Claude, for that kind introduction and for the fine work you do as Deputy Secretary. This is a great event and a great day to remember the rich history of this Department. I'd like to thank the many people who have made it possible:

  • The Blacks in Government choir
  • The children from the Boys and Girls Club
  • Congressman Dennis Moore
  • Ken Moritsugu, the Deputy Surgeon General
  • Rick Campanelli and everyone from the Office for Civil Rights

As Rick said, this Department played a very important role in bringing about civil rights in America. It's really a great story, and I'm so glad that we've had the opportunity today to learn more about it and to recognize the individuals-our Civil Rights Champions-who were on the front lines of the battle for equal opportunity and equal access to health care. I'm honored to be with so many of you and proud to give you these awards.

I'm also proud that our Office for Civil Rights continues to champion the cause of equal rights. This office is responsible for ensuring that all Americans have equal access to services in all HHS programs. By preventing and eliminating unlawful discrimination, the employees of the Office for Civil Rights help our Department carry out its vital mission of improving the health and well-being of all people.

As you heard this morning, this work began nearly 40 years ago when our Department insisted that hospitals be desegregated before receiving Medicare funds. And even now, OCR continues to review each new applicant to the Medicare program- several thousand each year-- to ensure that each is in compliance with civil rights laws. In fact, OCR's oversight extends to programs that receive HHS funds-more than a quarter million in all.

In addition to enforcement against discrimination, OCR also performs outreach and offers technical assistance and public education about civil rights. They bring diverse stakeholders together-- health care providers, academic institutions, other federal, state, and local agencies, and community and faith-based organizations -- to talk about issues of civil rights, access, and quality in health care. This is prevention at its best-improving service delivery before the problems rise to the level of a civil rights violation.

For example, OCR has been partnering with one of the grantees who is being honored this morning--the Center for Minority Health at the University of Pittsburgh-to co-sponsor a series of National Minority Health Leadership Summits. These meetings focus on recruiting and retaining minorities in health research, disseminating research findings to minority communities, and addressing issues of trust. OCR has sponsored similar conferences with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, such as Tuskegee.

In addition, OCR continues to provide guidance to health care providers with practical information about how to comply with the Civil Rights Act in providing services to persons with Limited English Proficiency. So the Office for Civil Rights has a proud record of advancing equality and opportunity.

And on a broader level, our entire Department is engaged in the fight to ensure that the ideals of justice and equality laid out in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 continue to hold true meaning in the lives of all our citizens.

Part of racial equality is health equality, and I believe that one of the great challenges facing our Nation is ensuring that all Americans have access to quality health care. A big part of this challenge involves not just reducing, but eliminating disparities in the quality of care available to minority communities.

Clearly, research and data indicate that health differences exist among racial and ethnic minority groups. There are gaps in health outcomes. Across geographic locations, racial and ethnic minorities are under-represented in health professions such as nursing. And minorities suffer disproportionately from chronic diseases that are often preventable. All told, we have some significant challenges throughout minority communities.

The good news is that our Department is working to reduce disparities and improve access to care. I have been committed to address these issues from the first day I arrived at this Department, and this commitment has not wavered.

Let me talk briefly about how we at HHS are working to help overcome these obstacles and contribute to a future of hope, promise, and equality for all.

We are expanding the good work of community health centers, which play a key role in addressing racial disparities. These centers are uniquely positioned to serve the patients who need our help the most, particularly underserved racial and ethnic minorities. They provide quality, compassionate care, regardless of patients' ability to pay.

Early in his Administration, President Bush outlined a five-year initiative to create 1,200 new or expanded health center sites that could increase the number of people served from about 10 million to 16 million in 2006. I'm happy to report that we are half way toward meeting these ambitious goals, thanks to a $500 million increase in funding over the last five years. More than 600 new or expanded sites are up and running, and health centers across the country have added over a million new patients for the second year in a row.

Over the last three years, over 300 community health centers have participated in the National Diabetes Collaboratives, which have experienced great success. Approximately 70% of all those served by health centers are members of a racial or ethnic minority. On average, patients participating in these Collaboratives have seen their blood sugar levels go down dramatically, significantly reducing their risk of eye, kidney, and nerve complications.

We are helping low-income seniors through the new Medicare Modernization Act, which provides almost 8 million minority Medicare beneficiaries with access to a prescription drug benefit for the first time ever. For the more than 1.5 million low-income minority beneficiaries who do not already have drug coverage, drug discount cards will give up to $600 per year to help them afford their medicines, on top of their discounts off retail drug prices.

In addition, three years ago, we launched Take A Loved One to the Doctor Day, which is part of our "Closing the Health Gap" educational campaign. In 2003, more than 35 million people heard Take a Loved One to the Doctor Day messages that were part of our African American and Latino radio campaign, or saw TV coverage of our local events. This year, it will be even bigger and better.

And yesterday, we held an event here in the Great Hall with Tom Joyner, our national chairman. We kicked off this year's effort to promote health literacy, education, and preventive steps by encouraging our citizens to take friends and relatives to see a health care professional.

The reality is that more individuals need to take advantage of the care that is available-particularly preventive health care services. As we learn more about our nation's health, it's clear that prevention is the key to a brighter future.

We want people to understand that they don't need to make drastic changes to their lifestyles to be more healthy. We're not asking anyone to run a marathon, join a gym or give up eating. We're talking about small steps. Play outside with your children. Snack on fruits and vegetables. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. These small steps can make a big difference in our health.

We are also screening more minority women for cancer through our National Breast Cancer and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. This program has provided more than 3.5 million screening tests for breast and cervical cancer to nearly 1.5 million low-income women. So we are helping to ensure that underserved women have access to screening services that can detect cancer early and reduce illness and death.

We are launching a new Stroke Belt Initiative, to reduce hypertension rates in the southeastern United States, where minorities are disproportionately affected by strokes.

And I'm pleased to announce a new initiative to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in infant mortality. This program-which is supported by $4.25 million in grants-will strengthen and expand our efforts to lower infant deaths caused by low birth weight, pre-term birth, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, that for too long has plagued African American, American Indian, and Alaska native communities.

We are also working to break down barriers that prevent people from buying health insurance and to help the uninsured-this is a major hurdle to reducing racial disparities. Over the past three years, we have approved Medicaid waivers and state plan amendments to allow state governments to expand access to health coverage for more than 2. 6 million people and to expand the range of benefits offered to 6.7 million other Americans.

About 5.8 million children who otherwise would not have health coverage were enrolled in the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) at some point during fiscal year 2003 -- a 9 percent increase from the previous year.

We are also supporting research specifically targeted at minority health. Last September, I announced the creation of eight Centers for Population Health and Health Disparities. These Centers are exploring the complexity of health disparities by studying obesity, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, prostate cancer, cervical cancer, mental health, and other diseases. We are investing more than $60 million in these centers over the next five years-and that's on top of the $65 million invested in NIH's National Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities.

We have also increased funding to address HIV and AIDS in minority communities that are disproportionately affected by this epidemic. The fiscal year 2005 budget includes a $53 million request to support innovative approaches to HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment in hard-hit minority communities.

And this past February, I created the HHS Council on Health Disparities to coordinate and unify these many different programs and to develop a specific action plan on disparities. This plan-which will be released in a few months- will bring our goals together under one overarching initiative, with actionable steps and measurable results.

I've just mentioned 12 different action areas where our Department is doing important work to address disparities, investing millions of dollars. I could list many more. And the grantees we are recognizing this morning exemplify how our diversity of programs are yielding tangible results.

Clearly, our record is strong, and we are taking important steps to reduce racial disparities. But when it comes to health equality, the challenge that remains is not reducing health disparities-we're already doing that-it's eliminating health disparities. And we will continue to pursue this goal.

I am proud that our Department is providing leadership to eliminate disparities, but this is not a problem that will be solved by HHS alone. Nor is it a problem that will be solved immediately. These issues are rooted in history, poverty and culture. They represent a complex social ill, and there is no silver bullet or simple cure for this complicated problem. Still, like our personal health, we can take small steps that will yield great progress. And each small step takes us in the right direction.

Friends, the sad truth is that forty years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, prejudice remains a reality in America. It hurts many of our citizens. And it holds back our society from achieving the ideal of equality expressed at our founding. As a nation, as a government, as individuals, we must be vigilant in responding to prejudice wherever we find it. That's what HHS will continue to do through our Office for Civil Rights and throughout our Department's programs.

I believe that this great and prosperous land can become a single nation of justice and opportunity. As President Bush has said, "We will not, and we must not, rest until every person of every race believes in the promise of America because they see it with their own eyes and feel it in their own lives."

It's my job to ensure that people see and feel the promise of this country when they receive top-notch care from the doctor-when they find a friend at a community health center-when their children learn the fundamentals of exercise and nutrition. And ultimately, when they see the benefits of better health in their own lives.

My friends, let us achieve this goal together. Thank you.

Last Revised: July 13, 2004