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National Action Network National Convention

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April 8th, 2011
New York, NY

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you Reverend Sharpton for that very kind introduction and more importantly for your tireless leadership.

I also want to thank Reverend Franklyn Richardson, Tamika Mallory, and the entire National Action Network Board and members for their leadership and commitment to promoting opportunity for all Americans.

I am delighted to be here with Valerie – a good friend, and wonderful partner in our work to improve the health care and essential human services for all Americans – to join you in celebrating 20 years of tireless advocacy and action for the cause of justice.

This Administration strongly believes that if America is going to win the future, we need to be a country in which every family, business, and community has a chance to thrive.

On Wednesday, you heard from the President about some of the steps we’re taking to increase economic opportunities and improve our education system.

But if we want to reach our full potential as a country, we also need to 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, too many of our minority neighbors live sicker and die younger than they should. And that weakens us all.

Today, one in five African-Americans and one in three Latinos are uninsured.

They’re less likely to have a regular doctor.

They’re less likely to have access to the treatment and screenings they need to stay healthy and prevent serious diseases like heart disease and diabetes. And these disparities carry a steep cost that goes far beyond health.

After all, it’s hard to pay attention in class when you’ve got a toothache that your parents can’t afford to fix. It’s hard to work fifty hours a week when you have chronic back pain that you can’t afford to treat.

And it’s hard to take care of your family when you have no insurance and a stack of unpaid medical bills.

That’s why, for two years on the campaign trail, President Obama made it clear that reducing health disparities had to be one of our top priorities. When he asked me to join him in the Cabinet, he reinforced that message, and over the last two years he’s maintained that focus.

He knew we couldn’t fix the economy or get our country back on track without fixing health care. So that’s what we set out to do.

Under President Obama, we’ve undertaken a broad agenda to reduce health disparities.

We’re working with the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative to end childhood obesity, which affects too many minority children.

And we’re working with communities through the Recovery Act to bring supermarkets and parks to underserved neighborhoods.

But the biggest step we took to reduce health disparities and improve the health of minority Americans, came last year when the President signed the Affordable Care Act into law – a law that could not have passed without the support of the people in this room.

Over the last 12 months, we’ve worked with physicians, nurses and community leaders, state and local officials, employers and patient advocates to deliver the benefits of the law to the American people.

We’ve made real progress over the last year. And for women, who are more likely to be uninsured or underinsured, the changes will be even more profound.

Moms who have children with asthma or diabetes now know that it will never again be legal for an insurance company to deny their child coverage because of their preexisting condition.

And in 2014 that protection will extend to every single person who has a pre-existing condition, which is especially important for minority adults with high rates of chronic disease.

Women will also benefit from new reforms to bring down costs. Many women own small businesses or are heads of households. They are often the ones shopping for health insurance for themselves, their families and their employees.

Under the law, we’ve made tax credits available right now to help small business owners pay for their employee coverage.

And new state-based marketplaces are being set up where in 2014 individual consumers and small business owners will be able to get better prices, more choices, and, when it comes to rate increases, greater transparency.

We also know that too many women today forgo important cancer screenings or don’t get their kids vaccinated because the cost is too high. Now, thanks to the Affordable Care Act new health plans and Medicare will not charge any copays or deductibles for these preventive services to keep people healthy.

But it doesn’t matter whether you have health insurance, if you can’t get a doctor’s appointment.

And it’s hard to take control of your health care if you don’t have a primary care provider to answer your questions.

So we’re also 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.

And we’re investing in community health centers, which currently provide high-quality, lower-cost care to nearly 20 million vulnerable patients to help them expand into neighborhoods and school sites where it’s still hard to find a doctor.

I visited one of those community health centers, the Boriken Neighborhood Health Center in East Harlem, this morning, where 90 percent of the patient population lives at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $45,000 for a family of four.

Boriken’s East Harlem community stands on the frontlines of some of our nation’s most daunting health care crises. It has the highest pediatric asthma hospitalization rate in the city, and high rates of diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and cancer.

At Boriken, people can get high-quality care whether they have private insurance, Medicaid, or no insurance at all.

There is comprehensive HIV-related education, outreach, counseling and testing. There’s a pharmacy as well as nutrition, dental, podiatry, and, obstetric and gynecology services. This is a model that we know works.

But with nearly 42,000 patient visits every year, the center has been stretched to its limit.

So with $12 million from the Affordable Care Act, we are helping the center grow to meet its community’s needs.

This morning, I saw the blueprints for a stunning new facility that will allow Boriken to double its capacity to 15 exam rooms, 8 dental rooms and a cutting-edge Data Center.

This is the kind of project that can help transform an entire neighborhood and efforts like it are underway in communities across the country.

So, when you take a big picture look at this law, here’s what the Affordable Care Act does: The new law makes it easier for you to get affordable health insurance now and it will develop a new insurance market by 2014.

The new law protects patients and makes it easier to get the check-ups and treatments you need to stay healthy. And we’re holding insurance companies accountable, so it’s harder for them to take these benefits away from you.

The law will make a huge difference for the health of all Americans, but an especially big difference for minority communities whose health has often lagged behind.

That’s why we’re working so hard, every day, to implement its benefits. And it’s why President Obama is committed to fighting to make sure the law is not repealed or unfunded or struck down in the courts – it’s just too important to our country.

Yet we can’t stop with the Affordable Care Act. If we believe in a nation truly free of disparities we have to think even bigger and broader.

This was our approach two years ago when we started reaching out to our stakeholders to ask them what the biggest health needs were in their community and how we could help them address those needs more effectively.

We collected answers from around the country.

And today HHS released our National Stakeholder Strategy for Achieving Health Equity. It’s a document informed by conversations across the country with over 2,000 physicians, nurses, teachers, faith leaders, business leaders, and families.

But we’re not just going to take this information at put it on the shelf with the rest of the studies that have been done to document the huge gaps in health care and health outcomes.

We’re going to put it into action. Which is why we’re also releasing our response to the Stakeholder Strategy today -- the first-ever HHS Action Plan to Reduce Health Disparities.

The Action Plan is my commitment as Secretary that we will use the tools, resources, research and assets at HHS to address these glaring gaps in health.

I have challenged our senior leaders who run agencies across our Department to review their activities and incorporate these strategies into every policy and planning decision we make.

And we have some specific goals, including:

  • expanding our efforts to ensure a diverse workforce;
  • enhancing data collection on the health of minority populations, because we all know if you can’t count it, it doesn’t count;
  • promoting the use of electronic medical records in minority communities; and
  • using our new levers from the health reform legislation to expand coverage and to increase quality of care for disparity populations.

You can find this plan on the HHS website and I encourage all of you to read it and share it.

This comprehensive Action Plan is the first of its kind. It’s never been done before.

For an example of the difference it will make, look at our new initiative to support the more than 70,000 Americans who have Sickle Cell Disease, most of whom are African American.

Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the first description of Sickle Cell Disease.

Over the last 30 years, research has resulted in improved life expectancy for people living with the disease. And yet we don’t have enough treatments and too many patients don’t have access to the care that has been proven to keep them healthy.

We can do better and we will.

The Department of Health and Human Services is launching a new Sickle Cell Disease Iniative to bring agencies like the NIH and the Health Resources and Services Administration together to invest in research and improve access to care for people with the disease.

Our renewed focus on Sickle Cell Disease reflects a new approach across the Department that says that when one community suffers disproportionately, we all pay a price.

And we all need to act.

Over the last year, the American people have already begun to see new benefits and protections thanks to the Affordable Care Act.

When the law’s promise of affordable health care for all Americans is fully realized, it will be a bright new chapter in this country. When being born a woman is no longer a pre-existing health condition in America, it will be a big step forward.

And now, for the first time, the United States has a coordinated road map designed to give everyone the chance to live a healthy life.

The work we’re doing together represents an investment in a shared future. It is rooted in our belief that if we want to grow and thrive as one nation, and give a better life to our children, then every American needs to be healthy and strong.

Thank you again for welcoming me here today. Thank you for the amazing work you have done as part of the National Action Network.

Your voices, your efforts, and your support have helped to make history. We stand at a moment of enormous opportunity for the health and well-being of every single American.

Working together we can achieve a healthier, brighter future for every citizen, and that will mean a more prosperous nation for us all.