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Families USA Health Action 2012

January 19, 2012
Washington, DC

Good morning.  It’s great to be here with you today.  Before I begin, I want to take a moment to acknowledge my good friend Ron Pollack.  I can’t think of any individual in my lifetime who’s fought harder or more tirelessly on behalf of Americans without health insurance than Ron.  So let’s give Ron a round of applause.

For Ron and for many of you here today, fixing our broken health care system for America’s families has been your life’s work.  Every time the national spotlight has turned to health care over the last three decades, Families USA has been there to make sure the voices of working families were heard in the debate. 

But you’ve also kept up the fight when the spotlight went away.  Even at times when there was little progress to be made or credit to be gained, you continued to make the case that we are a stronger, more prosperous country when all Americans, no matter who they are or where they come from, have access to affordable health care.  And today, thanks in no small part to those decades of work, we are closer than ever before to achieving that goal. 

Just think about what we’ve accomplished in the last three years:

Just a few days into his term, the President dramatically expanded health coverage for children with the reauthorization of the CHIP program.  Usually, in tough economic times, we see more children falling into the ranks of the uninsured.  Instead, more kids today have health coverage than ever before in American history.

Next, we passed a Recovery Act that prevented dramatic Medicaid cuts, expanded community health centers, boosted local prevention efforts, and started us on the path to a national system of electronic health records that will help doctors across America deliver better care.  In the process, we created tens of thousands of good new health care jobs.

We followed that up with the toughest anti-tobacco legislation in years, including new rules to crack down on backdoor tactics for marketing cigarettes to kids.  And then we passed new child nutrition legislation that will help millions of kids get a healthier start on life.

Now, if we had stopped right there, we could have been proud of what we achieved.  And that’s exactly the advice that a lot of people gave.  Look at the history of health reform, they said.  This is not a political winner.  And besides, this isn’t the right time.  There are too many powerful interests opposed to change.  Their advice was to quit while we were ahead.

But we have a President who believes we were put in office to address the tough problems, not run away from them.  So we took on what Senator Kennedy called the “great unfinished business of our society.”

I’m not going to make you relive that debate.  I think most of us remember it all too well.  Let’s just say there were a lot of bumps along the way.  I remember coming to speak at this conference in 2010 a few days after the special election for Senator Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts.  And even then, a lot of people were saying: “It’s the same old story.  Health reform gets close and then it falls apart at the end.”

But this time, we gave that story a different ending.  There were a dozen different moments when we could have given up, but the President didn’t give up.  Congress didn’t give up.  Families USA didn’t give up.  We pushed through and passed the bill.  And as a result, American families can already see a better health care future rising up on the horizon.

You see every day how this law is touching people in your communities.  Already, more than two and a half million young people are getting coverage through their parents’ health plans.  Millions of seniors with the highest medication costs have saved an average of almost $600 each on their medications.  Small business owners are getting tax breaks on their health care bills that allow them to hire more employees.  And we’re seeing some very unusual behavior from insurance companies: they’re withdrawing rate increases voluntarily and will soon be mailing customers rebates when they spend too much on overhead.

But these snapshots don’t capture the full picture of the change we’re seeing.  Thanks to the health care law, we’re seeing a new health insurance market emerge – one that works just as well for middle class families as it does for big insurance companies.  It’s a market where there’s much needed oversight to stop insurance companies from ripping you off.  And it’s a marketplace with a new level of transparency that will force the insurance industry to adopt a new business model: instead of competing to see who can sign up the most healthy people, they’ll compete to see who can put out the best product and service.

And as we continue to lay the groundwork for state-based Exchanges, we’re also moving closer to the day when we’ll be able to say for the first time in American history that – whether you’re young or old, whether you work for a big company or a small company or for yourself, whether you’re rich or poor – you’ll have access to quality, affordable health insurance.  It’s about time we could say that in America.

Perhaps most important of all, we’re also seeing the start of a transformation in patient care.  America today spends far more on health care than any country in the world, but Americans still live sicker and die sooner than other people.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  Our country’s best health systems are driving down costs by investing in prevention, coordinating care, and reducing preventable errors.  And the health care law helps more Americans get this kind of care by making it easier hospitals and doctors learn from these leaders.  There’s no reason America shouldn’t have the best health care in the world, and the Affordable Care Act is the first serious plan we’ve ever had for achieving that.

I know that in your cities and states, these changes may be hard to see.  But it’s important to keep in mind that we are talking about improvements that are decades in the making.  I like to quote from an old New York Times article, which reads: “Although four fifths of the population is covered by some kind of health insurance, the protection afforded is often skimpy and unreliable….  Close to half the people who file pleas for bankruptcy each year do so because of medical debts….  Americans might bear these medical burdens more cheerfully were they getting their money’s worth; but if the price of health care isn’t right, neither is the product.” 

The article goes on to talk about the shortage of primary care physicians, unnecessary procedures, the high number of preventable deaths, and rising out-of-pocket costs.  That article wasn’t published in 1997.  It wasn’t published in 1987.  It was published in 1977.   And after years of false starts and failed attempts, the Affordable Care Act has given us a path to solve or begin to solve every single one of those problems.

So this is a truly historic law.  It is the culmination, not just of all the work that you did over the last few years, but of decades of efforts to take a health care system that worked great for rich insurance companies and make it work better for everyday Americans.

I bring this up because we need to understand exactly what’s at stake when people talk about repealing the health care law.  And make no mistake: those attacks are going to keep coming.  One of the candidates for President recently gave a speech announcing she was dropping out of the race.  She used the word “Obamacare” nine times and the word “jobs” zero times.  So that gives you an idea what to expect.

In fact, I believe that over the next few months, we’ll see the biggest barrage of attacks and misinformation about the law that we’ve seen yet.  The law’s opponents are going to take their best shot.  And the reason why is that they know that the facts are not on their side. 

When the health care law passed, they predicted everything short of Armageddon.  But today, we can simply look at the facts.  Instead of the economy crashing, we’ve had steady job growth, with health care leading the way.  Instead of Medicare crumbling, seniors have seen their premiums fall even as they enjoy key new benefits.  Instead of providers rebelling, we’ve seen an unprecedented wave of interest in the new tools the law gives doctors and nurses to improve care. 

The law’s opponents are going to step up their attacks because they can see their window to attack is closing.  At the same time, the upcoming anniversary of the law and a Supreme Court Decision will put a new spotlight on the law in the coming months.  That makes those next few months critical.  And if we want to come out of them in a stronger position than we are now, we need to do two things.

First, we need to educate people about the law.  After two years of smears and misinformation, there are still far too many Americans who don’t know the basic facts about the law and the benefits available to them.  There are too many seniors who are still putting off that colon cancer screening because they don’t know they no longer have to pay a co-pay.  There are too many parents who are still worrying because they don’t realize that insurance companies can no longer turn away their children with pre-existing conditions.  There are too many small business owners who aren’t aware that they’ll soon be able to band together to negotiate the same low rates as large employers.

In particular, we need to let people know about the parts of the law that can help them right now.  The more we educate people about this law, the more they’ll be able to take advantage of its benefits.  And the more they take advantage of its benefits, the harder it will be for the law’s opponents to take those benefits away

Second, we need to make sure those benefits reach people by continuing to implement this law as effectively as possible.  As you know, the law gives states lots of flexibility to tailor reforms to their own needs, starting with the Exchanges.  As a former Governor, I believe this is one of the law’s strengths.  And our department is working hard to make sure states have the resources and support they need so that even as they take different paths, they all end up in the same place: with a health insurance market that finally works for consumers.

Today, we are at a make or break moment.  On the one hand, we have the most important health legislation since Medicare and Medicaid.  On the other hand, we have an opposition that wants to get rid of the law – and then dismantle Medicare and Medicaid along with it.

In the last year, we’ve seen the House pass a proposal that would cut Medicaid spending in half over the next decade, slashing funds for seniors in nursing homes and the poorest moms and kids.  And they’ve put forward an even more extreme approach to Medicare that would replace guaranteed benefits with a voucher seniors can use to negotiate with insurance companies.  Their claim is that this will help bring down costs, but we’ve already tested this theory with the Medicare Advantage program.  It doesn’t work.  Instead, we have higher costs and no improvements in care.

We can’t turn back.  Not now.  And as the calls for repeal get louder in the months to come, we need to remember exactly what the status quo they want to return to looked like.  In the decade before the health care law passed, our health insurance market was crumbling.  Tens of millions of Americans were locked or priced out of the market.  Premiums were rising three times faster than wages.  Employers were either shifting more of that burden onto families or dropping coverage altogether.  And at the same time, there was little improvement in our overall health, even as health care spending rose to more than a sixth of our economy by 2010.  The system was bad for families.  It was bad for business.  And it was bad for our economy.

But we also need to remember that this status quo wasn’t so bad for everyone.  During those same years in which the market continued to break down for consumers, the largest insurance companies saw competition fall and profit margins rise.  In fact, in the year before the law passed, the country’s five biggest insurers alone made $12 billion in profits.  In other words, there are powerful interests that have a powerful financial stake in the status quo.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that change is hard.  It always is.  And I know you all are working hard.  But the truth is that, if you share the belief that we are a stronger, more prosperous country when all Americans have access to affordable care, there has never been a better time to work on these issues than right now.

My father spent his life in public service, but he only served a single term in Congress.  He was fortunate that the term began in 1965, just in time to help write the Medicare legislation and then cast a vote to make Medicare into law.  He was at the right place at the right time to help put America on a better course, ensuring that generations of older Americans to come would not have to spend their retirement years struggling with health care bills. 

Today, we are at the right place at the right time to do our part to steer America towards a brighter future.  There is hard work left to be done.  But if we can rise to meet the challenges facing us in the months ahead, I believe we will be able to look back at these years as another one of those important moments when we moved forward together to become a healthier, stronger, more prosperous America.

Thank you.