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Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Public Policy Conference

Washington, D.C.
September 14, 2010

Thank you, Representative Roybal-Allard, for that nice introduction. And thank you for your outstanding leadership in Congress.

The work we do everyday at the HHS builds on your own father’s pioneering leadership as a champion for health care. Congressman Edward Roybal secured the first ever funding dedicated to research on AIDS and Alzheimer’s disease and our CDC headquarters campus in Atlanta is named in his honor. Today, you carry on that legacy proudly and we are grateful.

I also want to thank Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute for your critical work to support Hispanic leaders across the country.

In our department, we rely on terrific Hispanic leaders every day from our new Assistant Secretary of Legislation Jim Esquea to Carmen Nazario who did such a great job leading our Administration for Children and Families. From Dr. Ileana Arias the Principal Deputy Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to Georgina Verdugo, the Director of our Office of Civil Rights.

If you go through our department, you’ll find Hispanics playing a key role in all of our biggest undertakings from leading the response to H1N1 to helping families stay on their feet during the economic downturn to implementing historic health insurance reform.

This last effort is particularly important to the Hispanic community. For too long, too many Hispanics have been cut off from our health care system.

As many of you know, Hispanics have the highest rate of uninsurrance of any Americans. Nearly one third of all Hispanics have no health coverage, meaning they are just an accident away from going bankrupt.

But that is just the beginning. Too many Hispanics today have trouble finding a doctor. Or trouble finding a doctor they can talk to. Hispanics are less likely to get key preventive care, which means they’re more likely to suffer from chronic disease.

You can see disparities at every age from older Hispanics who are less likely to get important tests to young Hispanics who have higher rates of childhood obesity than their black or white counterparts.

It all comes with a high price, not just in preventable deaths and unnecessary illnesses, but also in children who can’t learn because they are sick and parents who can’t work because they have an untreated chronic condition and families who have to cash out their college savings to pay for hospital bills.

You know about these disparities. But for too long, they have gone unaddressed. Our health care policies were stuck on pause while costs skyrocketed, gaps in coverage widened, and too many families from all backgrounds went without the care they needed.

Today, I’m glad to be able to tell you that this is changing. Under President Obama, we’re moving forward with a broad and long overdue effort to start solving these problems and give Hispanics and all Americans more control over their health care.

That effort starts with the Affordable Care Act. As the group of Americans least likely to have health insurance, Hispanic families will benefit greatly from the new law. Altogether, about nine million Hispanics will be eligible to receive coverage.

When I came into office last year, people who didn’t get health insurance through their job often had no good options. I got letter after letter from hard-working Americans who just wanted to be treated fairly.

A typical one came from a man named Carlos from California:

“This sounds corny,” he wrote. “But I pay taxes, vote, get up everyday to work. I take responsibility for myself and my actions. I have an incurable disease and do not have the opportunity to drop my coverage or look for other care. As my health declines, I still work in a manual labor job which taxes my body. I feel lucky that I am able to contribute, and proud I do not need to rely on a handout. My biggest fear day in, day out, is not my illness. It is that I will not be able to afford my health insurance, become a burden, and put my wife through more incredible stress and hardship.”

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, Americans like Carlos are going to get better choices.

As part of the new law, we’ll create new health insurance marketplaces in every state called exchanges where families and small businesses can get the same health insurance choices as members of Congress. The plans that participate in these exchanges will be forbidden from denying people coverage based on their health condition. And there will be tax credits based on need to make sure everyone can afford coverage.

We’re also making it easier for people to find the right plan. In the past, trying to find the right health insurance plan for your family or small business often meant searching through page after page of fine print. This was hard enough to do if English was your first language.

So to help consumers, we created a new website called healthcare.gov. And last week, we launched the Spanish language version: CuidadodeSalud.gov.

Now for the first time ever, you can visit a single website that will tell you all your health insurance options.

For example, say I’m a small business owner from San Antonio: I’ll go to the website and get the list of health plans that are available to me and my employees. Starting in October, the website’s also going to have pricing information, so you’ll have all the information you need to make the right decision for you and your family at your fingertips.

All this easy access to quality information will have another benefit as well. Right now, we know that insurance companies feed off a lack of transparency.

Because it’s so hard for consumers to get good information, especially among vulnerable groups like Hispanics, consumers often end up paying too much. But when we made this information available to consumers in Kansas, I saw that it instantly makes markets more competitive.

With this transparency come still more new consumer protections. We are making it harder for insurance companies to take advantage of people from banning lifetime limits on coverage for most plans to forbidding insurance companies from cancelling your coverage just because they found an unintentional mistake in your paperwork.

What these reforms do together is put power back in the hands of families and small businesses. It’s going to be easier to find the right insurance plan, easier to afford it, and once you get it, it’s going to be a lot harder for your insurance company to take advantage of them. That’s the health insurance market of the future thanks to this law.

As we make these reforms, we’re building on the progress we started last February with the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act. Thanks to that law, we were able to cover 2.6 million additional children last year. Today, more children are being covered through CHIP and Medicaid than ever before.

These programs have also helped reduce the disparities in coverage for Hispanic children. As part of the new law, we made a long overdue change to eligibility for the program and Medicaid, giving states the ability to open them up to children and pregnant women who are legal residents without a five-year waiting period.

And today, I’m proud to report that more than half of the states have already waived that five-year waiting period, clearing the way for thousands of hard-working families to get the care they need.

But health insurance alone is not enough. You could have the best insurance in the world, and it still wouldn’t help much if you can’t get a doctor. Unfortunately, that describes too many Hispanics today.

Half of Hispanics don’t have a regular doctor and overall, Hispanic-Americans are only half as likely as white Americans to have a regular source of primary care.

Too many Hispanics go without the treatments and medicines they need simply because they can’t find anyone to provide them. To fill this gap, the Affordable Care Act makes a historic investment in community health centers to double the number of patients they serve from 20 million a year to 40 million. Health centers serve as the medical home to families nationwide -- more than half of their patients are members of racial and ethnic minority groups, including many Hispanic families.

The new law also makes a major investment in our health care workforce with special incentives for programs to help train minority health professionals we know are more likely to go back to their own communities to practice.

But it goes further and strengthens cultural competency training for all health care providers. The doctor-patient relationship is especially critical and improving communications between providers and patients will help address health disparities particularly in Hispanic communities.

Now, for many Hispanics all of these challenges are compounded even further by having less access to key preventive care.

To give just one example, white Americans are more than 50 percent more likely to get a colon cancer screening as Hispanics. This is a tragedy for the families who lose fathers and mothers to preventable illness. And it is also a burden on our health care system, requiring additional expensive procedures that could have been avoided for the cost of a screening.

Years of putting off action on health care have left deep disparities in health status. Hispanic-Americans are 60 percent more likely to die of diabetes than white Americans. They have higher rates of kidney disease and cervical cancer.

We believe that no American should have to skip a life-saving screening because they can’t pay. That’s why as part of the Affordable Care Act, we’re also eliminating cost sharing for certain preventive care in most plans.

A 58-year-old woman who’s at risk for heart disease should receive a mammogram, a colon cancer screening, a Pap test, a diabetes test, a cholesterol test, and an annual flu shot. Even if she has insurance, these tests could cost her more than $300 out of her own pocket, creating the temptation to skip one or two. Under the Affordable Care Act, she won’t have to choose.

Easier access to better coverage.

A stronger health care workforce.

Prevention.

These are three key parts of the health agenda we took on last year. For the last six months we’ve begun implementing changes that are already providing tangible help for children, small businesses, and lower income families.

And next week, a powerful new set of protections and benefits, will go into effect making sure your coverage is there when you get sick and need it most.

It would have been easy to put these reforms off, as we’ve done in the past. And we had an easy excuse in the recession. We easily could have said, “We know our health care system isn’t working for Hispanics and we’ll fix those problems later, as soon as we’re back on the path to long-term prosperity.”

But the President and I believe that closing these health disparities is essential to putting our country back on the right path. Today, one-quarter of US kindergartners are Hispanic. It’s estimated that half of U.S. population growth over the next 40 years will be among Latinos.

If our nation’s Hispanic children grow up to be prosperous, healthy, productive adults, America will be stronger than ever. If disparities persist, it will be hard for us to compete with countries that have a wider base of opportunity.

So with your leadership, we’re moving forward together. We’re making it easier to get insurance, easier to get a doctor and ultimately, we’re helping Hispanics and every American, live healthier lives.