National Action Network National Convention
April 12, 2012
I’m here today because this Administration is committed to building a nation where every American has a fair shot to achieve his or her dreams. And I don’t think there’s any work more central to that goal than improving our country’s health.
On a national level, you can look at any of our biggest goals as a country – creating jobs, helping our children succeed in school, building stronger communities. Improving health contributes to every single one of them.
And on an individual level, health is fundamental to opportunity. The healthier we are, the more freedom we have to pursue our dreams and contribute to our families and communities. A healthier country is one in which many more Americans have the chance to reach their full potential.
That’s why our country’s persistent racial and ethnic health disparities are so harmful. We know that minority Americans today are more likely to go without 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’re more likely to have limited access to the treatments and medicines they need to get better. As a result, too many minority Americans live sicker and die younger than they should.
And these inequalities spill over into other areas. After all, it’s hard to pay attention in class when you’ve got a toothache your family can’t afford to get fixed. It’s hard to go to work every day when you have a chronic condition that’s not being managed. It’s hard to take care of your family when you have a stack of unpaid medical bills sitting on your kitchen table. If we can begin to close disparities in health, we’ll begin to close disparities in many of these other areas too.
A year ago, I spoke about some of these challenges at the National Action Network’s conference in New York. But I also talked at the time about two powerful new tools we had to start addressing them:
A first-of-its kind Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities that is bringing all our department’s resources to bear in closing these gaps. And the historic health care law, the Affordable Care Act.
Today, we no longer have to speculate about the difference these efforts and others will make. We can look at the results. And this afternoon, I want to give you just a few of the highlights.
- Because of the steps we’ve taken, there are 410,000 African American young adults across the country who would have been uninsured but now have coverage under their parent’s health plan thanks to the health care law.
One of them is a 25-year-old law student named Ashley who I met a few weeks ago in Miami. Ashley is one of those young people who make you have faith in the future of the country. She’s smart, incredibly capable, and wants to devote her career working on social justice. And she can go ahead and pursue that dream now because she no longer has to worry about getting health coverage.
- There are an estimated five and a half million African Americans with private insurance who can now get recommended preventive care without paying any co-pay or deductible. I’ve met far too many women over the years who’ve put off a mammogram or a checkup to pay for groceries or their kid’s vaccinations. Now, many of them no longer have to face that choice.
- There are four and a half million African Americans on Medicare who have access to new benefits like free preventive care and savings on prescription drugs when they hit the coverage gap known as the donut hole.
- There are new common sense rules of the road for insurance companies. For example, they can no longer deny coverage to children because of their preexisting health conditions like asthma or diabetes.
I remember a couple years ago, I was at the Congressional Black Caucus dinner and a woman came and tapped me on the shoulder. 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.” Now, that mother and countless others have peace of mind.
- There is more funding for our nation’s 1,100 community health centers to allow them to build additions, add dental and mental health services, stay open longer, and serve millions more patients.
- There are a record number of children with health insurance. That sounds hard to believe since during difficult economic times, the number of uninsured usually grows. But thanks to the steps we’ve taken over the last three years, we now actually have the highest number of kids with health coverage in American history.
- There is an unprecedented effort underway to take on childhood obesity, an epidemic that has taken an especially large toll in the African American community. Thanks in large part to the First Lady’s Let’s Move Campaign, this has gone from a problem where there was a lot of talk but little action, to one in which we have food manufacturers, restaurants, schools, mayors, sports teams, and more all stepping up to do their part to help our children make healthier choices.
- And we continue to take steps to lay the groundwork for an improved insurance market that will dramatically expand access to health coverage.
In fact, according to a report we’re releasing today, these changes will allow 3.8 million African Americans who would otherwise be uninsured to gain coverage by 2016.
And this is just the start.
When you add all these pieces together, this is the most ambitious agenda for improving health and reducing disparities in decades. But what’s disturbing is that we’ve already seen attempts to roll back almost every one of these efforts. And that’s where you come in.
Today, we are at a make or break moment. On the one hand, we have the most important health agenda since Medicare and Medicaid. On the other hand, we have some who want to undo this agenda – and then dismantle Medicare and Medicaid along with it.
What we know is that the best way to make sure we keep moving in the right direction is to get people the facts.
Right now, a lot of people are benefitting from this law and don’t even know it. There was recently an article about a Jackson Mississippi woman who went to the doctor to have several tests including a colonoscopy and a mammogram. The bill came, and under the final balance it said “Zero.” She couldn’t believe it. But she said, “I didn’t even know why it was free.”
We need to reach people like her and make sure they know what the law is doing for them – and what’s at stake if it gets rolled back.
But we also need to reach the people who could benefit, but aren’t.
Somewhere in this country there’s a woman with a lump in her breast who’s putting off her mammogram because she doesn’t think she can afford the co-pay.
Somewhere there’s a senior asking herself which prescription she’s going to skip, or which pills she’s going to split, because she doesn’t know she can now get a discount on her prescription drugs.
Somewhere there are parents of a child with a heart defect who don’t know that they can call their insurance company and get coverage because their son can no longer be denied due to his pre-existing condition.
As community leaders and advocates, many of you work in the communities that have suffered the most from health disparities – and that have the most to gain by reducing them.
If we want to build on the progress we’ve made in the last three years, we need your voices out in your communities, getting people the facts, and explaining exactly what the improvements of the last two years mean for them. A great resource is the new consumer website healthcare.gov that I would encourage you all to visit if you haven’t.
Many of you know that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once called inequalities in health the most “shocking and inhumane” form of injustice. In our country, they have also been one of the most persistent forms of injustice.
But over the last three years, we’ve begun to turn the tide. Now is not the time to turn back. We need to keep moving forward towards the day when every child in America, no matter where they were born or what their background, has the chance to live a healthy life and contribute to their community and country. And we need your help to do that.