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The Council on Foundations

Atlanta, GA - May 5, 2009

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Ellen, for that introduction. I have been fortunate to spend many years in public life, serving the people of Kansas as Governor and now working as the Secretary of Health and Human Services. In that time, I have delivered many speeches, and quite frankly, I don’t usually get all that nervous.

But I admit that I got a little worried when I realized that the one person who knows every embarrassing story from my childhood would be introducing me today. So, Ellen, thanks for going easy on me.

I’d also like to thank Steve Gunderson and Ralph Smith for their leadership. And let me offer a special word of thanks to Conference Chairwoman Kathy Merchant for all her hard work.

And I want to thank all of you for the work you do each and every day. I’ve been on the job as the Secretary of Health and Human Services for less than a week, and I’m happy that my first trip out of Washington and my first speech have given me the chance to meet the people whose work has a profound impact the lives of millions of individuals – both here in the United States and around the world.

Today, I want to begin by providing everyone with an update on the novel H1N1 Flu Virus and our work to respond to this outbreak. Since the first cases were confirmed, our Department has been hard at work to reduce illness, slow the transmission of this disease and protect public health.

The Department first declared a public health emergency, a designation that gives us some of the tools and resources we need to protect the American people.

We then launched a major public information campaign using all the new communications technologies to ensure the American people have the information they need about this virus. Millions of Americans have responded. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at provides facts about the virus and guidance that will help keep Americans healthy and inform those who may be sick.

My colleague Secretary Napolitano and I have held multiple briefings for members of the media and, last week, we hosted a webcast that gave the 76,000 Americans who participated the chance learn more about this virus. And we have regularly briefed state and local officials about the steps they can take to protect their communities.

We recognize that clear, accurate information is essential in times like these, and we are committed to communicating directly with the public.

The federal government has also acted quickly to make treatments available for those who have acquired this virus. We have shipped more than 11 million treatment courses of the antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza from the strategic national stockpile to states in need. We are actively working to replenish our stockpile with 13 million new treatment courses. And we are coordinating our efforts with the World Health Organization and stand ready to assist in an international response.

Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health and CDC are partnering to develop a vaccine that will protect the American people from this virus. We are working closely with vaccine manufacturers and moving faster than ever before to create a vaccine that is both safe and effective.  It’s a terrific example of the public and private sector coming together to help the country.

We know a great deal about this virus, but I would caution you all that we still have much to learn. The flu virus is always unpredictable and we don’t know what this virus will do.  We expect to see to see more cases, more hospitalizations and, unfortunately, more deaths.

But we are prepared to respond. Government officials have been preparing for this type of outbreak for years and that preparation has paid off. Later today, I will be touring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters and I am looking forward to meeting and thanking some of the scientists, researchers and staff who have put their training to work and are leading our national effort to respond to this latest outbreak.

We are thankful for your help in this trying time, but you should know that HHS is not interested in partnering with your organizations only in times of crisis.

The Department of Health and Human Services has a long history of working successfully with foundations to better serve the American people.

Foundations and the Department have worked to address the shortage of nurses, fight devastating diseases like malaria, strengthen health care systems, tackle health disparities and create healthy communities. Working together, we have improved services for children, needy families, seniors and individuals with disabilities that often go without the care they need.

Our partnerships have yielded results, but I know we can do more. In the months ahead, I will look for opportunities to work with your foundations to leverage our shared resources. These partnerships have succeeded in the past, and you have my personal commitment to help build relationships that will thrive in the future.

I recognize that the philanthropic sector brings more than grant dollars to the table: you have built the kind of expertise we need to tap in order to tackle some of our nation’s toughest challenges. You convene the best thinkers and social entrepreneurs to devise innovative solutions to often neglected problems facing our country and our world. You are able to bridge ideological, social, and economic divides that government finds hard to traverse.  

And our partnerships will thrive because so many of your foundations and our Department share the same goals.

At the Department of Health and Human Services we have a simple mission: protect the health of the American people and provide essential human services, especially for those who are least able to help themselves. We work to improve the health of the nation, provide child care to millions, help families move out of poverty and support senior citizens.

I know that hundreds of foundations are represented here today and I know how many of your organizations share our mission. You support families in need in the United States, work to stop the spread of AIDS on the African continent and expand educational opportunities in countries across the world. You are committed to improving public health and supporting people in need.

And we share more than just a stated mission. We share a sense of purpose.

In just a few days in Washington, I have found that the Department is comprised of men and women who have made serving their country their life’s work. They could earn more money if they did something else. But they have chosen to serve their country and the world.

These talented men and women are some of our greatest resources. And we cannot – and we will not – miss the opportunity to bring these resources together.

The new Administration is already moving closer to that goal.

President Obama has created the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation at the Domestic Policy Council, led by Melody Barnes. You will be hearing from Melody, but I wanted to take a moment to highlight this new effort.

President Obama knows that all good ideas don’t come from inside the Washington beltway. Foundations and the not-for-profit groups you support are home to some of the most innovative strategies for solving our challenges. You have tremendous expertise on a wide range of issues. You develop best practices that can change lives.

We must tap into your expertise and your knowledge because making our country healthier, preventing disease, and improving services for children and families will take all of us working together. As President Obama has said, we need an “all hands on deck” approach. And that approach must include foundations like yours and non-profit groups.

The new White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation was created to strengthen non-profit and community groups; to identify creative partnerships; to help small groups with big ideas expand and serve more Americans; to inspire more Americans to serve their communities.

And it is just one of the ways we plan to work hand-in-hand with organizations across the country to make our nation stronger and find new solutions to old problems.

We look forward to expanding these efforts, and creating more partnerships with community organizations, non-profit groups and foundations so we can take on the tough issues together.

One challenge we must tackle together – and one of President Obama’s top priorities – is health care reform.

Many of you have spent years working to improve health care; investing significant resources to educate the public and care for Americans in need. On behalf of the entire Obama Administration, I want to thank you for the work you have done to set the stage for a truly historic opportunity.

Your focus on health care is reflected at this conference. In the days ahead, many of you will participate in a conversation about how we can improve our health care infrastructure to serve more people and make our nation healthier.

The same conversation is happening in Washington and it is has never been more important.

In just over 100 days, this President has done more to advance the goal of health reform – reducing costs, guaranteeing choice, and assuring quality, affordable health care to all Americans – than has been done in the past decade.

One of President Obama’s first acts was to sign legislation to provide health care to 11 million children, including 4 million who were uninsured.

The President then signed the American Recovery Act, which includes essential resources to prevent a surge in the number of uninsured Americans during these tough economic times. This will help an estimated 7 million people will keep their health insurance through COBRA. $87 billion for states is available to make sure that people with disabilities and low-income Americans who rely on Medicaid don’t lose coverage as states work to balance their budgets. And community health centers that provide essential health care for millions of Americans have received $2 billion so they can expand and serve more patients.

In addition to these critical coverage provisions, the Act lays the foundation for a 21st century health system. It provides $1 billion for prevention and wellness programs, $1.1 billion for critical comparative effectiveness research, $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health, and $500 million to train new nurses and doctors.

We got off to a fast start. We have made critical investments that will help ensure coverage for millions of Americans.

But our work is far from complete.

The Obama Administration is focused on passing health reform legislation that will end the unsustainable status quo and adhere to some basic principles.

We believe that reform must reduce the long-term growth of health care costs for businesses and government. The high cost of care is crippling businesses, who are struggling to provide care to their employees and remain competitive. It is driving budget deficits and weakening our economy. And you can’t fix the economy without fixing health care.

It’s instructive to look at how the billions of health care dollars are spent. In my experience, I have seen that 16 cents of every health care dollar is spent on care for the uninsured. If an illness gets worse, uninsured Americans go to the only place where they can get health care – the emergency room, where care is more expensive and less efficient than taking preventative steps.

The inefficiencies don’t stop there. Approximately 30 cents of every health care dollar are spent on billing, overhead and administration.

Spending on the uninsured and the health care bureaucracy takes up nearly one half of every health care dollar and results in a system where we all pay more and get worse results.

And the high cost has devastating consequences for families. In America, half of all personal bankruptcies are related to medical expenses.

It’s time to fix an inefficient system that has plunged millions of families into debt, and hinders our economy.

We believe that reform must guarantee that Americans have a choice of doctors and health plans. No American should be forced to give up the doctor they trust or the health plan they like. Comprehensive reform will not force patients who are satisfied with their coverage to make changes they never sought.

And finally, we believe that we must assure affordable, quality health coverage for all Americans. That means ensuring that no one loses their health care, simply because they have lost their job.

It means ending barriers to coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions. Too many families have been denied basic care or offered insurance at astronomical rates because of a pre-existing health condition. Insurance companies should no longer have the right to pick and choose. We will not allow these companies to insure only the healthy and leave the sick to suffer.

It means protecting patients and improving the quality of care. Our country is home to some of the finest, most advanced medical technology in the world. But today, healthcare associated infections – infections caught in a hospital or other settings -- are one of the leading causes of death in our nation. 98,000 Americans die each year as a result of these and other medical errors -- more than car accidents, breast cancer, or AIDS. These numbers are not acceptable for the world’s wealthiest nation.

And improving the quality of care is about more than just changing the way we care for the sick. It means making immediate and significant investments in prevention and wellness. The old adage is true – an ounce of prevention truly is worth a pound of cure. Health care shouldn’t just be sick care. It should make our homes, our communities and our families healthier, safer and stronger. It should help stop diseases before they happen. It’s time to make preventing illness and disease the foundation of our health care system.

Putting these principles into law will not be easy. Presidents and politicians have been talking about health care reform for more than fifty years. As President Obama often says, if it were easy, it would be done by now.

But today, I can report to you that we are closer than we have ever been to enacting real, comprehensive reform. And the President won’t give up until he succeeds.

In Congress, leaders share this priority and urgency. There is unprecedented cooperation between committees and across the aisle. In the Senate, Democrats have been working closely together and with their Republican counterparts. Key chairmen have committed to passing reform legislation out of their respective committees in June.

In the House, the three main committees responsible for health reform have also committed to working on one bill that they will advance in July. Key Republicans like Joe Barton of Texas have signaled support for the President’s principles for reform.

And, just last week, Congress passed a budget blueprint that includes an historic commitment to funding comprehensive health care reform.

This kind of bipartisan cooperation is unprecedented.

At the same time, the old opponents of reform have joined our effort to change the status quo. Groups and organizations that were once fierce enemies have come to the table and embraced the call for real health care reform. The people behind the television ads you saw fifteen years ago against reform are now working together for it.

Many of your foundations and the organizations you fund have been essential in bringing us to this point. Your support has helped ensure health care reform remains in the spotlight and on the front pages. We are grateful for all you have done.

Now, I am eager to work with you to ensure we cross the finish line.

As you discuss health and health care at this conference, your conversation will be informed by your own work and your experience with programs that deliver health care to underserved populations.

During your conversations, I encourage you to specifically discuss the reform effort that is taking place in Washington and the goals our Administration has established.

And when this conference ends, I hope you will share your thoughts with us. President Obama has committed to making health care reform an open, transparent process that brings all parties to the table. No voices will be excluded and yours must be heard.

We are also counting on you to communicate the urgency of fixing the health system for the millions of Americans you touch every day.

I know it’s tempting for some to reduce every legislative discussion in Washington to a simple political fight. It is easy to stand aside and stay above the fray. But this is it: the once-in-a-lifetime chance to break the gridlock that has hurt so many Americans.

This is not political and it is not optional. Inaction threatens our health and our economic security.

So today, I am asking you, in your unique role as America’s top foundations to reach out to your grantees, community stakeholder, board members and local officials. Help get the conversation going and take the reform cause outside of Washington.  Stress why change is necessary and what it could yield:  communities that are not strained by the burden of crippling health costs. Families that are not forced to choose between health care and housing. Businesses that can afford new jobs and investments.

Our current system is unacceptable and unsustainable and I’m here to ask you to work with us; work to make health reform a priority, help engage the millions of Americans who know we must fix our health care system make their voices heard. If we work together we will make health reform a reality.

In order to make government more transparent and to communicate information outside the Beltway, our Department  has created several tools that make it easy to get involved, including a website – – that presents opportunities for the American people to learn about health reform and state their support for reform this year. I hope you will encourage people to visit the site often for updates and information.

And I look forward to years of working together to achieve the many goals we all share. We are starting with a monumental task, but we cannot afford to wait. And I know that together, we can do what conventional wisdom says is impossible. We can give the American people the health reform they need and make history.

Thank you all for having me here today and best wishes for a successful conference.

Now, before I close, I have the special privilege of making an introduction of my own. For more than a week, you have heard from Dr. Rich Besser several times a day as he updated us all about the H1N1 virus. He has been a tremendous leader during this outbreak and I want us all to take a moment to give him a round of applause.

Dr. Besser has done an outstanding job as acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and his recent work builds on a long career that has been dedicated to improving public health. He has done critical work on food borne diseases, published hundreds of papers and been continually recognized for his work.

So please join me again in welcoming the Acting Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rich Besser.