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29th National Minority Enterprise Development Week Conference

September 28, 2011
Washington, DC

Thank you, David, for that introduction. It’s great to be here with you all today.

I feel very fortunate to lead a department that touches the lives of Americans in every area of the country and from all walks of life. Whether it’s getting health insurance through the Medicare or Medicaid programs, getting checkups at the local community health center, having a child in Head Start, taking a medicine developed by scientists at the NIH, or eating fruits and vegetables monitored by food inspectors at the FDA, every American benefits from our department’s work.

And because we are a department that serves the whole of America – from inner cities in Florida to tribal communities in Alaska and everywhere in between – we believe it’s critical that our department reflects the full diversity of the country we serve.

This has been a personal priority of mine since I arrived at HHS. In the first few months after I became Secretary, I signed an Equal Employment Opportunity policy statement that outlined my strong personal commitment to having an inclusive and diverse workforce. And when it comes to the contractors who support our department and carry out so much of its work, the same principle applies.

We couldn’t do the work we do at HHS without our contractors, and we wouldn’t do it as well as we do if we didn’t recruit from the widest talent pool possible. That’s why we’ve worked aggressively over the last two years to reach out to minority firms across the country.

In the last few months alone, our staff has traveled to Atlanta, Raleigh, Los Angles, San Diego, Miami, Reno, and New Orleans to talk to local businesses about how they can partner with us. We’re also doing similar outreach to colleges and universities that serve primarily minority students. And today, I’m proud to report that since 2008, our awards to minority firms are up nearly 40 percent.

That’s a good start, but we have a long way to go. And one of the best ways we can reach more minority-owned small businesses is by opening our doors to small businesses of all kinds across the country.

Small businesses are the engine of our economy. They create two thirds of new jobs. They’re nimble, innovative, and they can often do the job as good or better as a big firm. But when it comes to the government contracting process, many of them lack the resources, relationships, and experience of their larger competitors. And that can put them at a disadvantage.

We need to level the playing field, which why President Obama has made reaching out to small businesses a key priority for his Administration. At HHS, we have an entire team dedicated to working with small businesses. They work around the clock to make sure small businesses have the information and resources you need to put in competitive bids. And that work is paying off. On the most recent Small Business Procurement Report Card, our department received an “A.” And we’re on track to meet our goal again this year.

In addition, we’re also working to implement the President’s proposal to speed up payments to small businesses, so you can get your money faster and invest it faster.

To learn more about any of these programs or how you can work with our department, I encourage all of you to visit our booth here at the conference. This is a priority for the President. It’s a priority for me. And I look forward to working with many of you in the months and years to come.

Now, this week you’re here in Washington focusing on government contracting. But in the other 51 weeks of the year, small businesses face a whole range of other challenges. The last few years have not been easy for America’s small businesses. We’ve come a long way under President Obama since the depths of the economic crisis in 2008 when our economy was losing 700,000 jobs a month. But while corporate profits are all the way back, small companies’ aren’t.

Too many small businesses on Main Streets across America have seen their sales flat line or even drop. Too many have had to shelve their plans to expand. Too many have lost customers who are suffering in the downturn themselves.

That’s why it’s so important that Congress acts now to pass the President’s American Jobs Act. This bill would provide an immediate spark to our economy. It’s not designed to create jobs in a year or six months. It’s designed to create jobs starting right now. And one of the main ways it does that is by putting money directly into the hands of America’s leading job creators, the people in this room.

You may have already heard a few highlights about this bill from other speakers this morning, but I’m going to repeat them because they’re important. The American Jobs Act will cut taxes for every single small business in America. I’ll repeat that: it will cut taxes for every single small business in America.

It will cut taxes for small businesses that hire new employees. It will cut taxes for small businesses that give their employees raises. And it will cut payroll taxes for small businesses in half. That’s money that you can put right back into growing your company.

And that’s just the start. The American Jobs Act also invests in rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure, provides funds to states to prevent the layoffs of 280,000 teachers, and provides a tax cut for the working families, saving families an average of $1,500 a year. These investments will help lay a foundation for an American economy that’s built to last, and every one of these actions will also put more money in the pockets of your customers so they can start spending it at your businesses.

There is not a single good reason not to pass this bill – not one. These are bipartisan ideas. They’re completely paid for under the President’s plan. And they directly address our country’s biggest need, which is faster job growth starting right now. The chief economist at Moody’s – someone who has advised both Republicans and Democrats – has said that the American Jobs Act will add two percent of growth to the American economy and create 1.9 million badly needed jobs. So I hope Congress will act now to pass this law and send it to President Obama to sign because we can’t afford to wait another 14 months for action.

This is the single biggest step Washington could take right now to help America’s small businesses start growing and hiring again. But this has been a priority for all of us in President Obama’s Administration from day one. And for us at HHS, that has meant dealing with one of the biggest challenges that small businesses face, which is the cost of health care.

I came face to face with this when I was Governor of Kansas. No matter whom I was talking to whether it was a farmer or a store owner, one of the first concerns they’d raise to me would be the rising cost of health insurance.

A lot of the small business owners I talked to saw health insurance as a Catch-22. If you didn’t provide health insurance, you couldn’t keep and recruit the best employees. If you did provide health insurance, the premiums were often so expensive that you couldn’t afford to hire anyone. Either way, it was a bad deal.

I remember one Hispanic businessman in Connecticut who put it to me very simply. He said, “I can afford to pay salaries or I can afford to pay health insurance, but I can’t afford both.”

So under last year’s health care law, we’re taking concrete steps to bring down health insurance costs for small business owners.

The first step is new tax credits are available to help small businesses provide health insurance for their employees. Here’s how it works: if you have fewer than 25 full-time employees and average wages of less than $50,000, you can now get a credit of up to 35% of your health insurance costs. So a business with 10 workers making $25,000 each and typical health insurance costs would get a tax credit of $24,500 that they can invest right back into the business.

That tax credit is available right now, and we’re already seeing it make a difference. Take Jamal Lee. He runs a digital recording studio and production company in Laurel, Maryland, halfway between Baltimore and Washington, DC. In the past, he wasn’t able to purchase health insurance for his employees. Now, thanks to the tax credit, he can.

Here’s what he said, “Knowing we’re covered if something happens has an enormous impact on morale and my employees’ physical and emotional well-being.” And he says he’ll be more competitive when he wants to hire new employees too. So something else I encourage all of you to do is to find out whether this tax credit could make the same difference for your business as it did for Jamal’s.

That’s step one. The second step we’re taking is making it easier to find affordable coverage. For the last year, our department has been working with states to set up a new health insurance marketplace for small businesses.

What that means for you is that starting in 2014, there will be one place where you can go to see all your coverage options in one place. You’ll be able to compare plans, compare prices, and it will all be completely transparent.

That’s going to make it easier for you to shop for coverage, but more importantly, it’s going to create competition that will drive down prices. This is something I saw very clearly when I was Kansas Insurance Commissioner. When you force insurance companies to line their plans and prices up next to each other, they suddenly become very reluctant to offer the most expensive plan.

In the end, these actions reflect our belief that as small business owners, you shouldn’t be spending your time worrying about rising health insurance costs you can’t control. We want you to be able to focus on what you do best: satisfying your customers including us, growing your businesses, and creating jobs.

Ultimately, our recovery will be driven by America’s businesses and workers. But government can help. We can make a difference, whether it’s reaching out to guide small businesses through the contracting process or bringing down your health insurance costs or Congress passing the American Jobs Act to provide an immediate spark to our economy.

That’s been a top priority for this Administration for the last two years. It’s been a top priority for our department. And it’s going to continue to be a major focus in the months to come.

Thank you.