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Hampton University 97th Annual Ministers’ Conference

Hampton, Virginia
June 7, 2011

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Dr. Harvey, for that kind introduction. And thank you for inviting me to join you here tonight. Ninety-seven years ago, a small group of ministers came together to talk about how they could make a bigger difference in their communities. Today, you are 5,000 strong and your influence is felt in every corner of the country.

You have come here not just because of your shared faith, but also because of a shared ministry that goes beyond your congregations. Your churches have never just been places to worship. Ministers have also been agents of change in our communities. On Sundays, you pray for a brighter tomorrow. On Mondays, you get to work making it happen.

During the Civil Rights movement, churches were where marches and protests got organized, and it was ministers who walked out front. As the fight for legal rights grew into a broader fight for equal opportunity, churches led the effort to breathe life into neglected neighborhoods and fill gaps in our social safety net.

Because of your efforts, our children are growing up in a much fairer America than the one in which we were raised. And yet, we know that unconscionable disparities remain.

Tonight, I want to talk to you about one gap in particular, the gap in health, and about what we in the Obama Administration are doing to address it. But more importantly, I am here to ask for your help – to talk about how you and your congregations can continue to walk out front as we work to end health disparities in America.

When we look at health in America, African-Americans trail in almost every category. African Americans are more likely to suffer from conditions like obesity that can lead to health problems. They’re less likely to get key preventive care. They’re more likely to develop 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.

What this means for your communities is that there are too many people passing away before they ever get to hold a grandchild. There are too many kids who can’t concentrate in class because they haven’t eaten a healthy breakfast. There are too many families emptying out their college savings to pay their astronomical health care bills.

When you add up all this individual suffering – all the missed classes, all the sick days, all the lives ended too soon – these disparities have huge economic costs. In total, it’s estimated that racial and ethnic health disparities cost our economy more than $300 billion a year in lost productivity, and that doesn’t count the loss of precious lives. That’s not just bad news for the communities hardest hit. That’s bad news for America!

Dr. King once said that of all the forms of injustice, these disparities in health were the most “shocking and inhumane.” But even knowing everything I just told you, I am full of hope as I speak to you tonight because I truly believe that we have never had a clearer road to better health than we do today.

Some of you are old enough to remember the great legislative achievements of the 1960s. My father served only one term in Congress – from 1965 to 1967. But in those two years alone, he got to cast a vote for the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, and major improvements to Social Security. Along with other laws like the Civil Rights Act, these efforts charted a course towards that “more perfect union” in which opportunity and prosperity were more accessible to all of our citizens.

I can proudly say tonight that in the last two years, our President, Barack Obama, has done more than any President since then to build on that progress – and lay a stronger foundation for better health for all Americans. And the cornerstone of that foundation is the health care law he signed last year, the Affordable Care Act.

I remember last year at the Congressional Black Caucus dinner, I got a tap on my shoulder from a woman who was at the next table. She said: “My son had a liver transplant when he was ten months old.” I was a little taken back because that’s pretty serious. I said, “Well, how is he?” She said, “He’s fine. He’s 23, but I have been terrified his whole life that he would never be able to get coverage because he will have a pre-existing condition.”

That woman and millions of other Americans now have peace of mind because the health care law is finally ending the days of insurance companies deciding who gets covered and who doesn’t! And when all the law’s pieces are in place, we’ll be able to say for the first time in our history, that every American has access to affordable health insurance.

But affordable coverage is just one part of that foundation. We also need more doctors and nurses who are recruited from and return to underserved communities. So we’ve made a big investment in recruiting, training and placing new minority health care providers.

We know that keeping people healthy is much cheaper and more effective than treating their illness. So we’re working to do just that, from the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign to a huge investment in Community Health Centers to supporting new projects to build safe play areas and bring fruits and vegetables into food deserts.

Earlier this year, our Department released its first-ever, department-wide Action Plan to Reduce Health Disparities. First, we had conversations with over 2,000 doctors, nurses, teachers, business leaders, and faith leaders across the country. Then we took their best ideas and turned them into a comprehensive strategy for how we can use our department’s resources to close gaps in health. We also have a new national HIV/AIDS strategy that will make sure our resources are focused on the communities and populations with the most disease.

This is the strongest foundation for improving America’s health in decades. But this historic effort will fail without your help.

As faith leaders, you have a unique ability to reach people, especially the most vulnerable among us. No one can do more to arm your congregations and communities with the tools and information they need to get healthy, stay well, and thrive. So tonight I’m asking every one of you to lift up ‘health’ as an important part of your ministry.

Many of you are already doing this. There are churches across the country fighting the stigma of HIV/AIDS by helping congregants get tested after services. We have churches that are sponsoring health fairs where people can get key disease screenings. Some churches have even invented a new kind of exercise class – gospel aerobics. You’re doing tremendous work, but tonight I’m here to tell you that we have to do more, because more is needed.

None of you has extra money, or idle time, or volunteers going to waste. But tonight I want to highlight a few areas where, without spending a dime, you can make a huge difference in the health of your communities.

First, I’m asking you to help us implement the new Affordable Care Act. Help us push back against the mistruths, battle harmful proposals to roll back the law, and educate your parishioners about new benefits, particularly those who are hardest to reach and have the most to gain. The health care debate will continue until the law is fully implemented, and we need your voices.

Second, help us get the word out about the National Health Service Corps. We want your talented young parishioners who want to be doctors or nurses to know: “if you go practice in an underserved community, we’ll give you a scholarship or help pay your loans.” This program is being expanded under the health care law, so make sure that community members who are interested in health careers know about it.

Third, help spread the word about your local community health center. Earlier this year, I was at a health center in East Harlem. It’s typical of this great program. Ninety percent of their patients are below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Folks have high rates of diabetes, cancer, and HIV/AIDS.

East Harlem had nearly 42,000 patient visits last year – for check-ups and HIV tests, nutritional counseling and OB-GYN services. They run a child care center, and work with seniors who need help staying in their homes. But community health centers can’t do the best work unless everyone knows they can come, get good care, and stay healthy!

Finally, I encourage you to get familiar with our new website – and make sure your congregation knows about it too. This is a website that not only contains information about the health care law, but also allows you to see all the health insurance options that are available to you in your community. It’s a great tool that makes something that used to be very complicated – shopping for health insurance – very easy. And our staff will even set up a guided tour to help you get acquainted with it.

If you haven’t done it already, I hope you will connect with Mara, Acacia and the whole team in our Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. They’ve sent some helpful toolkits to the organizers of tonight’s event – and they are always available to support you as you build and develop your health ministries.

Our ultimate goal must be for every American child, no matter what color their skin or where they were born, to have the chance to grow up and live a long, healthy and productive life. But as Dr. King said: “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”

If we are going to reduce and eventually close health gaps in this country, we will need to build on the progress of the last two years. We need to link arms on the front lines of this struggle and march together towards a healthier America for all our people.

Thank you.