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Howard University School of Divinity Spring Convocation

January 18, 2011
Washington, DC

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Dean Pollard for your kind introduction, and for your outstanding leadership of the Howard University School of Divinity.

I also want to thank President Ribeau and the Howard University faculty, staff, students, and alumni for your great contributions in scholarship, research, and service here in the US and around the world.

I particularly want to recognize the School of Divinity’s efforts to connect the faith leaders with public health in the community.

Faith leaders are trusted partners in local communities. You have a unique ability to reach people, especially the most vulnerable, with the tools and information they need to get healthy, stay well, and thrive.

Here at Howard, you have done so much to promote better health, whether through health ministries or by connecting people to critical services from urgent care to early education from foster care to housing.

So I’m glad to join you here to celebrate a new academic year, but also to honor a man whose life exemplified courage, public service, and an unwavering belief in the American dream.

That dream, which was also Dr. King’s dream, is of a country where every child, no matter where they were born or who their parents were or what color their skin, has a chance to reach their full potential.

In his lifetime, Dr. King saw that dream begin to take shape. He saw Social Security established to ensure that no American black or white had to live out their final years in the poor house. He saw the Civil Rights Act pass, which guaranteed that you could not be turned away from a hospital or hotel because of the color of your skin. He saw Medicare and Medicaid created, giving millions more Americans the security of knowing they could get health care when they needed it.

In the four decades since Dr. King was taken from us, that progress has continued. It has not always come as quickly as it should. We have sometimes taken one step back for every two steps forward. But in the last 40 years, we have seen incomes rise and educational opportunities open up. We watched African-Americans rise to the highest levels of business, academia, and government.

The opportunities available to the average child, black or white today, would seem almost impossible 80 years ago, when Dr. King was born.

And yet for all the progress we’ve made in the last few decades, we still have a long way to go before we reach Dr. King’s dream – the American dream. And nowhere is that more clear than in health.

Last week, our department released a new report showing that racial and ethnic minorities still lag behind in almost every measure of good health. They’re less likely to get the preventive care they need to stay healthy. They’re more likely to suffer from a serious illness like diabetes or heart disease. And when they do get sick, they have less access to the treatments and medicines they need to get better.

These health disparities carry a steep cost for our country. It’s hard to pay attention in class when you’re sick. It’s hard to do your job when you have a chronic health condition. And it’s hard to take care of your family when you have no insurance and a stack of unpaid medical bills. Too many of our minority neighbors live sicker and die younger than they should.

Everyone should have the opportunity to reach their full potential, contribute to the nation’s strength, and be a part of the public good. 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 two years, that’s what we’ve done.

In too many neighborhoods today, health suffers because it’s hard, and sometimes impossible, to make healthy choices. When you have to walk two miles to get fresh produce at the nearest supermarket but only half a block to get a bag of chips at the corner store, it’s hard to eat nutritious meals. When it’s not safe to play outside, it’s hard for our kids to get exercise.

So as part of the Recovery Act legislation that President Obama signed shortly after taking office, we’re taking some historic steps to support some of the most promising approaches for promoting wellness and reducing chronic disease in cities across the country. Planting urban gardens in Boston, building neighborhoods where it’s safe to walk and play in Louisville, or helping people quit smoking right here in DC, are community efforts underway to improve health.

And because we know there are too many neighborhoods where there are not enough doctors and nurses, we’re investing in our primary care workforce, with a special focus on doctors and nurses from underserved communities who we know are more likely to go back to those same communities to practice.

Altogether, our workforce investment is going to help train and support 16,000 new primary care providers by 2015.

It means that thousands of Americans, from all backgrounds, are going to get to fulfill their dream of being healers in their communities. And hundreds of thousands of new jobs across the health care field are being created. It will be easier for countless Americans to get the care, especially the preventive care, that can keep them healthy and out of the hospital.

But when we passed the Recovery Act, the important health work had just begun.

As you know last year, we passed an historic new health care law, the Affordable Care Act. And people don’t often talk about it this way, but it was the most important legislation to reduce health disparities since Medicare.

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.

We know that nearly half of African-Americans have a chronic condition or disability. They are prime targets for insurance discrimination. Under the new law, it’s already illegal for insurers to deny coverage to children based on their health status. And, starting in 2014, discrimination against pre-existing conditions will be gone for good.

Under the new law, 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 working families will receive tax credits to help them buy health insurance for themselves and their children.

So if you’re one of those people who found yourself choosing between one plan that cost too much and another that covered too little, by 2014 you’ll be able to choose between a range of affordable coverage choices.

Today, one in five African-Americans doesn’t have health insurance at all, 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.

The new law is also bringing new opportunities to some of the communities that need the most attention

We’re opening new community health centers which see patients regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay. Millions of Americans already rely on these neighborhood health clinics for primary care, and the Affordable Care Act will help serve 20 million additional patients.

We’re investing millions in nursing education, interdisciplinary geriatric education, and Centers of Excellence committed to increasing diversity in the healthcare workforce, like the one right here at Howard University.

When you take a big picture look at this law, here’s what it’s going to do: it’s going to make it easier for you to get affordable health insurance. It’s going to make it easier for you to get the check-ups and treatments you need. And it’s going to hold insurance companies accountable, so it’s harder for them to take these benefits away from you.

It will make a huge difference for the health of all Americans, but an especially big difference for African-American communities that have often lagged behind.

At the same time, we understand that inequalities in health are part of a bigger picture. The fact is that health disparities often stem from broader disparities in economic well-being. Where you live, what you eat, the air you breathe, and the water you drink all affect your health.

African-American and Latino Children are significantly more likely to live in poor neighborhoods than non-Hispanic whites. Higher poverty among minority children and the lower educational attainment of their parents both have negative effects on children’s school achievement.

But we know that all children can learn and that is why this administration is turning a spotlight on education – from the infant and toddler years through college and graduate school, like here at Howard.

We are working with the Department of Education to raise the quality of early education programs, because we know that children who attend high quality preschools, go on to school with the social, emotional and developmental skills they need to succeed.

President Obama has asked Education Secretary Arne Duncan and me to work together to ensure that all of our children are in safe learning environments in their pre-school years so they can take advantage of a quality K-12 education, and have an opportunity to attend college.

We will not achieve Dr. King’s dream overnight. But we are headed in the right direction. And there is progress to be made right at our front doors, right here in Washington DC.

Last summer 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.

The new national strategy provides a road map to reduce new infections, increase access to care, and improve health outcomes for people living with HIV.

It’s a national strategy, but its success depends on local action.

We need to build strong partnerships with the help of businesses, government, people living with HIV, and so many others. The National Strategy highlights an important role for faith leaders to reach out to their communities in support of HIV prevention, testing, and treatment efforts.

DC can become a national model for this kind of collaboration.

Our city has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the country—at least 3% of the city’s adults and adolescents are living with HIV. Communities of color nationwide are particularly vulnerable to HIV—but the situation in DC is especially alarming. African Americans represent more than three quarters of DC’s HIV/AIDS cases.

A year ago, the National Institutes of Health launched its D.C. Partnership for HIV/AIDS Progress, a $26.4 million research-focused initiative designed to address the District’s HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The new partnership has called on scientists and doctors from Howard, George Washington University, and a whole host of institutions across the District studying the circumstances and behaviors that place African-Americans in our city at high risk for HIV infection.

We’ve opened new clinics to treat illnesses that have special impact on HIV patients like hepatitis. And we’re studying the so-called “test and treat” approach to reducing the spread of HIV, expanding HIV testing efforts and moving people who test positive for HIV into care and treatment immediately, since we know that people who know their HIV status and who are being treated are less likely to spread the virus to others.

In order for programs like these to have the greatest impact, they need to reach deep into the community.

So I’m asking you today to help us put the brakes on the spread of HIV here in Washington, DC. As students, faith leaders, organizers, neighbors, friends, advocates and activists, as members of the Howard community, and District residents, you can play a vital role.

People trust you. They respect you. They look up to you, and they will often follow where you lead. So please reach out.

We need your help – sending a message throughout the community – for folks to get tested and know their status – help breaking down the walls of shame and stigma that perpetuate the HIV epidemic. And we need your help – connecting positive cases with treatment and care.

Your participation and leadership can make a huge difference.

More than 40 years after Dr. King’s death, we still have a long way to go to achieve his vision of a country where every member of our community productively contributes and participates in our nation’s life, and is able to reach his or her God- given potential.

With the historic legislation of the last two years and an Administration that has no tolerance for the status quo on disparities, we are on the right track. And as we move forward, we are also mindful of another one of Dr. King’s famous lines, that “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”

Dr. King pointed the way. The new legislation has removed obstacles. And now it falls to us to keep moving forward to build a society where everyone has a chance to live a happy and healthy life.

Thank you.