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National Coalition for LGBT Health

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October 17, 2011
Washington, DC

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you Verónica for that kind introduction.

I want to thank Daniel Gould and Hutson Inniss for their leadership as well.

And I want to thank every one of the coalition members here today for your tireless work on behalf of the health and well-being of LGBT communities.

I am delighted to be here today. But I know that recently for some, there has been sadness as well with the recent loss of two of the LGBT community’s strongest voices for justice.

Frank Kameny was a true pioneer whose courage and leadership shaped the gay rights movement for half a century.

And Paula Ettelbrick transformed how our nation -- and our laws -- define what it truly means to be a family.

Their contributions were enormous. And their passing is a terrible loss. It is a reminder to all of us that we build on the work of those who came before of us -- and that we have a lot more work still to do.

It has been a decade since the National Coalition for LGBT Health was founded.

Ten years ago, a group of health leaders came together to advocate for LGBT health to be included in the federal government's 10-year blueprint for a healthier nation known as Healthy People 2010.

What came out of those initial efforts was the LGBT Companion Document to Healthy People 2010 -- a report that brought together, in one place, a wide range of resources for anyone seeking to apply the Healthy People principles to their work with LGBT communities.

This was a powerful tool. And it was a challenge to the federal government to do better.

Ten years later, I’m happy to report we’ve made progress. When we launched Healthy People 2020 last December, LGBT health didn’t need a companion document. For the first time, it was its own section.

I’m sure you agree it was about time. And it reflects the work that you, the LGBT community, and the public health community has done over the last ten years.

As a result of your work, today, we have a far better understanding that LGBT Americans face real and significant health disparities – another terrible consequence of discrimination, oppression, and social stigma.

We also know that it is possible to begin closing these disparities. The means are within our reach. It requires recognition, research, and access to resources -- specific attention from health care providers and public health professionals committed to advancing LGBT health.

And we recognize the importance of federal support. That is why over the last two and a half years, the Obama Administration has used all the tools available to us to ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans have a chance to reach their full potential.

And I want to take a few moments now to talk about some of the progress we’ve made.

As you know, last year, we issued rules giving all hospital patients, including those with same-sex partners, the right to choose who can visit them in the hospital.

These rules apply to all hospitals that participate in Medicare and Medicaid and since announcing them, we’ve reached out to the state agencies in charge of enforcing the rules to make sure they are up to speed and fully prepared to enforce them. We see this as good health care policy but more importantly, it is a matter of simple justice.

And we didn’t stop there.

The President also directed our Department to follow up with additional recommendations for action – concrete steps we can take to improve the lives of LGBT Americans.

Many of the recommendations that we ultimately gave the President came out of discussions with advocates and organizations across the country – including many of you here today. Now, many of these ideas are already being put into action.

For example, we are taking aggressive steps to protect every American’s right to access our department’s programs.

What that means under our new non-discrimination policy is that all HHS employees are explicitly directed to serve everyone eligible for our programs -- without considering factors such as race, national origin, color, religion, sex, disability, age, status as a parent, genetic information -- or, of course, sexual orientation or gender identity.

We also know that in order to better serve LGBT communities, we need to better understand the specific health challenges they face. And we can’t do that without the good data necessary to conduct quality research.

So this summer we released an LGBT Data Progression Plan in order to begin integrating sexual orientation and gender identity variables into HHS national surveys.

And last month, we held the first of two listening sessions to begin data collection in transgender communities.

But one thing we already know is that access to community-based providers who are knowledgeable and culturally competent is important for every community. That’s why we’re taking steps to give community health centers the tools to double their capacity and reach underserved communities.

For example, last month our Health Resources and Services Administration awarded nearly $250,000 to the Fenway Institute in Boston to create a National Training and Technical Assistance Center to help community health centers improve the health of LGBT populations.

This will help develop curricula specifically targeted to LGBT populations.

And by working closely with state primary care associations, we expect its benefits to reach communities across the country.

We are steadily reaching more and more health care professionals and giving them better tools to support LGBT patients. But we also know that not everyone can afford to be patient in a system that is slow to change.

Chief among them are LGBT youth who are more likely to be homeless than their peers and 2 to 3 times more likely to attempt suicide. So many of our agencies have paid special attention to the steps they can take today to improve the lives of LGBT youth.

For example, we’re working within our child welfare system to place LGBT foster children in loving homes. And just recently, we released a report with recommendations for providing the best possible care in shelters for homeless LGBT youth.

Whether we’re changing hospital visitation rules or working to stop bullying in our schools, each of these policies touches countless people’s lives.

And together, they represent an ambitious commitment to every single American to make sure that absolutely nothing stands between them and the best and safest health care possible.

That same commitment runs through the Affordable Care Act, which is steadily moving us toward a health care system that is focused on the needs of patients, not insurance companies.

The law is already protecting LGBT Americans from many of the worst abuses of the industry.

A year and half ago, insurers could cancel your coverage when you got sick just because you made a mistake on your application.

Under the Patient’s Bill of Rights, this practice has been banned, along with other harmful policies like lifetime dollar limits on coverage, which often meant your benefits disappeared when you needed them most. And annual limits are going to be a thing of the past come 2014.

The Affordable Care Act is also helping millions of LGBT Americans gain access to recommended preventive care and screenings for free, including for diseases that affect LGBT populations at rates higher than other populations. This includes cancer screenings, blood pressure and cholesterol screenings, HIV testing, and contraceptives.

And as of last fall, insurers can no longer deny coverage to children because of their pre-existing health conditions – a protection that will extend to every single American in 2014.

In these ways, the Affordable Care Act may represent the strongest foundation we have ever created to begin closing LGBT health disparities.

But you know the health law remains under attack. So we need you to use your voices to make sure it remains the law of the land.

No one is in a better position to help the people who can benefit from this law’s new rights and protections. And no one is in a better place to reach people with the tools and information they need to achieve their full potential.

I know most of you have been fighting these battles for a long time. And you may not have always had active partner in federal government. But that is changing.

We have come a long way in ten years but we still have a long way to go.

Our fight against HIV/AIDS is an important example.

Thirty years on, we still aren’t doing enough for all the populations the disease effects. And I am especially concerned about the rising number of infections among young gay men of color.

At a time when our nation is making such important strides to break down walls of discrimination aimed at LGBT Americans, we need to do everything we can to make sure that the next generation is here and healthy to enjoy the benefits of that progress.

I want to thank you again for inviting me to speak with you this morning. And I look forward to taking a few questions.

As you have shown us over the last decade, when we come together, we can make a huge difference.

Where once we failed to study LGBT health at all, today researchers engage LGBT populations and are looking to collect the data we need to ground our work in science and shape our vision for the future.

Where once LGBT youth felt scared and alone, today we know how to build safe schools and loving homes. Where once, patients saw their rights denied and care beyond reach, today we can promise the dignity and support they deserve.

We have begun to push open doors that seemed shut forever. Looking ahead, the future gives me real hope. And I’m looking forward to working with you to make it as bright as possible.