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National Urban League Girls Luncheon

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Washington, DC
July 30, 2010

Thank you, Marc, for that nice introduction. And thank you for your work to open the doors to opportunity for all Americans.

It helps to have great allies in Congress like Representative Barbara Lee, one of our greatest champions for social justice, who’s here with us today.

This year, the National Urban League is celebrating a remarkable milestone. Not many organizations survive to see their 100th birthday. And few that reach that point continue to make the contributions to our national life that the National Urban League does.

That’s a tribute to the incredible dedication of the men and women who work for the League – and the thousands more who donate their time or resources across the country, including many of you here today. Over the last hundred years, you’ve helped tear down barriers to opportunity in our neighborhoods, job markets, and schools.

But it also reflects how far we have left to go to achieve the League’s goals.

Yesterday, President Obama talked about the steps we’re taking to recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and give every American child a high-quality education.

These efforts are essential to our future prosperity.

But no matter how many jobs we create and how many great teachers we train, we won’t fulfill our country’s promise of equal opportunity unless we also address what Dr. King once called “the most shocking and inhumane" form of injustice: inequalities in health.

For all the progress we’ve made in the last few decades, African-Americans and Latinos still lag behind in almost every measure of health. They’re less likely to get the preventive care they need to stay healthy and more likely to suffer from a serious illness like diabetes or heart disease. When they do get sick, they have less access to the treatments and medicines they need to get better.

These disparities carry a steep cost that goes far beyond health. After all, it’s hard to pay attention in class when you’re sick. It’s hard to work a fifty hour week when you have a chronic condition. And it’s hard to take care of your family when you have no insurance and a stack of unpaid medical bills.

In total, it’s estimated that racial and ethnic health disparities cost our economy more than $300 billion a year in lost productivity.

For all these reasons, President Obama and I knew when we took office that reducing these disparities had to be one of our top priorities. And over the last year and a half, with the help of leaders in Congress like Representative Lee, we’ve undertaken the broadest agenda to improve health in underserved communities in the last forty years.

That started with the Recovery Act last February.

As you know, its main goal was to help families weather the recession. And it did that, creating or saving an estimated 3 million jobs, though we have more work left to do.

But the Recovery Act also made several key investments in transforming our health care system.

For example, as many of you know, we have a shortage of primary care doctors today. And not just in rural areas. In many urban neighborhoods too.

So the Recovery Act invests in our primary care workforce, especially doctors and nurses from underserved communities who we know are more likely to go back to those communities to practice.

The Recovery Act also makes a historic investment in helping people live healthier lifestyles.

Using Recovery Act funds, we’re supporting some of the most promising approaches for promoting wellness and reducing chronic disease in cities across the country, whether it’s planting urban gardens in Boston or helping people quit smoking in Chicago housing projects.

And we’re closely following these programs so that successful programs can become models for the rest of the country.

These efforts began last February. But we didn’t stop there.

Earlier this year, the First Lady launched a nationwide campaign to end childhood obesity in a generation and reverse a trend that has seen too many of our children – especially children of color – develop chronic conditions that can shorten their expected life spans before they even enter adulthood.

Then a few weeks ago, we launched our first-ever comprehensive National HIV/AIDS strategy, which will focus our resources on the communities that have been hardest hit by this disease.

Today, African-American men and women are one eighth of the population. But they’re nearly half of Americans living with HIV.

It would be foolish and tragic to ignore this data. And under our new strategy, we will focus our prevention and treatment resources on the communities where the need is greatest.

Each of these efforts is another step towards ending health disparities.

But the biggest step we took to reduce health disparities in the last year and a half – the biggest step we’ve taken in the history of this country – was passing the Affordable Care Act.

Under the new law, we’re restoring some basic fairness to our health care system.

We are putting in place some common sense rules of the road for insurance companies, like ending the practice of denying coverage to people because of their preexisting health conditions.

So if you’re one of the nearly half of African-American adults with chronic conditions, your days of being shut out of the health care system are coming to an end.

We’re also creating new health insurance Exchanges – consumer-friendly, state-based insurance markets where Americans will get the same coverage choices as members of Congress. And many Americans will receive tax credits to help them buy health insurance for themselves and their families.

Today, one in five African-Americans doesn’t have health insurance, putting them a hospital bill away from disaster. With the Affordable Care Act, every American – no matter where you live or who you are – will have access to affordable health coverage.

For 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 also contains new ways to collect health data by race and ethnicity, so we can measure our results and hold ourselves accountable.

Bringing all these efforts together, this fall, our department will issue the first-ever National Plan for Action to End Health Disparities. This plan was not thought-up in a Washington DC conference room. It came out of conversations across the country with doctors, nurses, and teachers…faith leaders, business leaders, and families.

When we opened the first draft of the plan for public comment this spring, we got nearly 3,000 comments that we’re working to include. When we’re finished, for the first time ever, our country will have a comprehensive road map for giving every American, regardless of where they were born or who you are, the chance to live a healthy life.

Executing this plan will not be easy. Carrying out our agenda will take hard work.

But there are opportunities to reduce health disparities all around us. For example, today there are five million uninsured children who are eligible for the Children’s Health Insurance Program or Medicaid but don’t have coverage. That’s five million children who are just a few pieces of paperwork away from getting access to the care they need.

I’ve issued a challenge to my colleagues in the Obama Administration, to state and local governments, to community and religious groups, to schools and businesses, to the country to help cover those 5 million kids by 2015. And today, I want to leave you with that same challenge.

For 100 years, the National Urban League has helped promote opportunity for Americans in underserved communities. Helping sign these children up for health insurance will be another significant step towards that goal – and move us closer to the day when “the most shocking and inhumane form of injustice” is no more.

Thank you.