Health Action 2010 Grassroots Conference
January 28, 2010
Thank you, Ron, for that introduction. And thank you for inviting me to come visit with you today.
Ron and I go way back. We served together on a Clinton Administration commission on protecting consumers in the health care industry. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to solve all of consumers’ problems with our health care system, which is why we’re here today. But I did get to know Ron and I’ve been so impressed since then with how passionate he is about helping working families. There aren’t many people who have worked longer or more effectively to solve our health care problems.
But I have to tell you, as great an advocate as Ron is, the real reason his words have power is because of you. When it comes to fighting for health care for working Americans, no one is more determined than the men and women and families that make up Families USA. You bring the voices of the American people into rooms in Washington where they’re not usually heard. When the conversation gets bogged down in the details, you’re the ones who remind us why we’re trying to change our health care system in the first place: because no American should have ever have to go bankrupt because of a hospital bill or choose between food and medicines.
It’s not an easy job. I know that. It’s hard to be heard over all the special interests. It’s even harder when they have a $20 million megaphone. And it’s tiring. We have a legislative process that’s not always well-suited to rapid change. Or clear fixes. It can be easy to become apathetic and say, “none of this matters.” It can be easy to become cynical, and say, “nothing we do will make a real difference.” But Families USA has never done that. You’re not afraid of a tough fight. You’re not intimidated by lobbyists and their ad campaigns. You’re willing to do the hard work that brings about the slow but powerful changes that move this country closer to its highest ideals.
You’ve been doing this a long time, even when health care was out of the headlines. But this year, you’ve worked harder than ever before. As health insurance reform legislation made its way through Congress, you were there every step of the way. Every time opponents of reform reached into their wallets to begin a new campaign of confusion and distortion, you were there to remind people about the millions of Americans who skip their doctor’s appointments…or cut their pills in half…or go without the life-saving treatments because they don’t have access to insurance they need or can’t afford it.
And on behalf of myself, President Obama, and all the Americans I’ve heard from over the last year who’ve asked me to fight for a fairer health care system, I want to say “thank you.” In the last twelve months, thanks to your hard work, we’ve not only built a foundation for comprehensive health insurance reform in Congress. We’ve also begun that work outside of Congress: from expanding health insurance for children, to helping families keep their coverage during the economic crisis, to building a health care system that delivers high quality care to every American, not just the ones who can afford to go to our fanciest hospitals.
These are meaningful changes. But we know that much work remains to be done.
Last night, you heard President Obama deliver a powerful call to Congress to pass health insurance reform. “Do not walk away from reform,” he said. “Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people.”
That is our goal. We will continue to support reform for the simple reason that it is the best way to help the millions of Americans without health insurance and the millions more who are underinsured.
We will continue to support reform because it’s also the best way to help the rest of Americans are just a pink slip away from being at the mercy of insurance companies that are allowed to deny you coverage because you have a preexisting conditions, put a cap on your benefits, or take away your policy if they find a mistake in your paperwork.
We will continue to support reform because we know what will happen if we don’t. You heard it from President Obama last night. “Millions of Americans will lose health insurance this year. Our deficit will grow. Premiums will go up. Co-pays will go up. Patients will be denied the care they need. And small business owners will continue to drop coverage altogether.”
As President Obama said, he will not walk away from these Americans and neither will the rest of this administration.
Now, there’s no doubt we’ve faced some challenges in the last month. But as the President has said many times, we never thought this would be easy. We knew there would be highs and lows and changes in momentum. We knew there would be moments when it felt like all hope was lost. If this was easy, we would have done it 60 or 50 or 40 years ago.
When you look at the issue from the perspective of the current news cycle, it’s easy to be discouraged. But when you take a broader view, there are more reasons to be hopeful. We already have two very good bills that have passed the House and Senate. As President Obama pointed out last night, reform has the support of the doctors, nurses, and health care experts who know our system best. It has been calculated to reduce the deficit by as much as $1 trillion over the next two decades by the Congressional Budget Office – the only group whose health care reports are more highly anticipated than Families USA.
Most important, we have a President and Congressional leadership who believe strongly in the need for reform. And after 12 months of misleading special interest attacks, there is still strong support among Americans for the basic principles of reform.
The foundation for passing health insurance reform is still strong. And people from both parties have a responsibility to build on that foundation to pass a health insurance bill that helps everyday Americans. Because if there’s one lesson we’ve learned over the last 40 years, it’s that our health care system will not fix itself.
That fact hasn’t changed. The needs of the American people haven’t changed. Our determination has not been shaken. And we’re going to continue to work with Congress to pass a bill that achieves these goals.
But at the same time, we also know that the work of fixing our health care system did not begin with the legislative process. And it was never going to end with a bill in Congress either. We were never going to say, “Okay, we passed a health insurance reform bill. Let’s all go find another issue to work on.” This was always going to be a long fight. Which is why we didn’t wait for Congress to get started.
As you all know, one of the first bills President Obama signed after taking office was the CHIP Reauthorization Act, the biggest expansion in affordable health care coverage since Congress passed CHIP in 1997. Thanks to the CHIP reauthorization, today four million more children have access to quality health insurance. That means millions more parents who don’t have to hold their sick children in their arms, trying to decide whether to go to a hospital and risk a huge bill or hope their child gets better.
When we passed the bill, we knew that expanding access to health insurance was just a first step. Our ultimate goal was to make sure more kids had health insurance. That’s why we’re also spending $100 million on a national campaign to get kids signed up for CHIP and Medicaid. We know from experience that there are many kids who are eligible for these programs but haven’t signed up. Maybe their parents don’t speak English or didn’t realize they qualified or the rules were too complicated. We think there are millions of kids out there who are eligible for coverage right now, and we think we can find and cover them all within a few short years, so they can get the treatments and medicines they need.
After we passed the CHIP reauthorization, we also knew that we needed to do something to help the thousands of Americans who were losing their jobs and health insurance every day. We knew that many Americans depended on COBRA for coverage, especially if they had preexisting conditions which make it hard for them to buy insurance on the individual market. So as part of the Recovery Act, we gave working Americans some relief by cutting their COBRA payments by 65 percent. And last month, President Obama extended this program so that people will be able to get this assistance for 15 months as they look for new jobs.
At the same time we were expanding COBRA, we saw that the economic crisis was forcing many states to make cuts to Medicaid, hurting Americans’ benefits and coverage when they needed it most. So under the Recovery Act, we also provided $87 billion in additional Federal Medical Assistance Percentage funding to states to help them maintain essential health services. When the economy slumps, working families get hit hardest. By taking these rapid steps, we were able to soften the blow for millions of families.
We also recognized that having health insurance isn’t much use if you can’t get a doctor. This is an especially big problem for working families in rural and inner city areas where health care providers are less likely to set up shop. That’s why we’re investing $500 million in our health care workforce, including $300 million in the National Health Service Corps, which sends doctors to communities with health care provider shortages.
It’s also why we’re investing $2 billion over the next two years to help community health centers, expand, add new services, and better serve the working families in their neighborhoods. Community health centers are the backbone of our health care system. They provide high quality primary care to 18 million patients a year. Often, they’re the patients other providers can’t see, or won’t. With the investment we’ve made, we’ve already helped hundreds of thousands of families get quality, affordable, convenient care.
You know about these changes because you’ve helped fight for them. When they come before Congress, you’re there, explaining the issues and speaking up for millions of Americans who will benefit from the added security and stability. Thanks to you, we have a stronger health care safety net in January, 2010 than we did in January, 2009. And we’ve also taken some significant steps to improve the quality of care for all Americans.
Now I know that these sorts of programs can often seem removed from the urgent challenges Americans face. The woman who wrote me because she’s had 11 surgeries in the last 3 years and just lost her coverage because she can’t afford her premiums needs health insurance, not the $80 million investment to reduce healthcare-associated infections that we made last year. But that historic investment is important too. It will save lives and lower costs. And it’s steps like this that will help ensure that every American gets the same quality of care that the wealthiest Americans enjoy in America’s best hospitals.
With the same goal of improving the health of all Americans, we’re also investing $650 million around the country to prevent chronic disease. Most of those funds will go straight to local programs that are using innovative strategies to keep their communities healthy, from getting schools to serve more fruits and vegetables to redesigning neighborhoods so that they’re more walkable.
You can’t separate these initiatives from the fight for affordable health insurance for every Americans. President Obama and this administration believe that nobody should end up in the emergency room with a heart attack because they couldn’t afford preventive care. But we also believe that nobody should end up in the emergency with a heart attack because they grew up in a community where there were no affordable healthy food options.
When you add up all these steps, you could argue that we did more to improve health security for working families in 2009 than we have in any year for decades. And we couldn’t have accomplished any of them without the support of committed activists like you working on the ground to raise awareness about these policies and get Americans engaged.
When I think about the challenges ahead of us, I think back to 1965. That’s when we passed Medicare, an incredible achievement that provided security for millions of American seniors and their families. But remember, Medicare didn’t pass easily. President Roosevelt considered adding a health bill to Social Security but decided against it. President Truman took up the cause, but was turned back. President Kennedy made it one of the major issues of his campaign but came up short. And then finally, it passed under President Johnson.
But even then, it was just a beginning. It took 40 years of small additions and improvements to produce the Medicare we have today. And even now, there is more work to be done to make sure that seniors can afford their medicines.
The point is that progress has always been gradual. It has come steadily, but often only after disappointment. Think of the late, great Senator Kennedy whom we are honoring this morning. He made fighting for health care the cause of his lifetime, only to come up short of his ultimate goals time after time. And yet, in his last year, he was not discouraged. He was still fighting with more energy than ever and leading this country closer to comprehensive health insurance reform than we had ever come before.
To achieve the health care system working families need, we need you to fight with that same determination. We need you to continue to advocate and argue and amplify the voices of Americans who aren’t always represented in Washington. We could not have come this far without you. And there’s no way we can cross the finish line without you either.
If we remain determined, if we do not succumb to apathy or cynicism, if we keep the focus on how much all Americans have to gain from a stronger health care system, I believe we can build on the progress we made in 2009 and take even bigger strides in 2010. This administration remains committed to the goals of security and stability for every American with insurance, affordable options for those without, and lower costs for everyone. But we’re going to need your help.