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National Action Network MLK Day Luncheon

January 15, 2013
Washington, DC

Good afternoon.  Thank you, Reverend Sharpton, for that introduction.  And thank you for inviting me to be with you again today as we celebrate the enduring legacy of Martin Luther King—and consider how the values he stood for can continue to guide our work today.

Fifty years ago, about three miles from this spot, Dr. King spoke of opening the doors of opportunity to all Americans.  He wasn’t speaking about health care—at least not specifically.  He was speaking about freedom more broadly—about the right of all people to have a fair shot at achieving their dreams.

But Dr. King knew that health care is fundamental to that right.  He knew that without equality in health, it’s impossible to have true equality in education, in the workforce, or in society at large.

I’m talking about the child who can’t see the blackboard at school, and falls behind because his family can’t afford glasses.  The parent out of work because of an untreated chronic condition.  The grandmother who ends up in the hospital because she can’t afford a preventive screening.

It’s only when we’re free from the burden of illness and medical debt that we’re fully able to provide for our loved ones, pursue our dreams, and contribute to our communities.  And yet, half a century after Dr. King spoke of his dream, tens of millions of Americans are still denied this basic freedom, many of them African-American.

If we want to be a country that fulfills its promise of equality—a country in which everyone has a fair shot at reaching their potential—then we need to ensure that all Americans have an opportunity to live a healthy life.

That’s why the Obama Administration has made closing health disparities one of our highest priorities.

Over the last four years, we’ve attacked inequality in health from every angle.  We’re bringing more doctors and nurses to the neighborhoods that need them most.  We’ve launched an historic effort to promote active lifestyles and healthy eating habits through the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign.  We’ve put in place a new Action Plan that’s charged every agency in our department with working to reduce health disparities.  And we’re seeking out opportunities to support promising local efforts like your new health and wellness initiative.

All of this work is critical and will continue.  But even if we have a health center on every corner, fresh fruits and vegetables in every local market, and a safe park in every neighborhood, we will never achieve true health equality unless we also make health care affordable for every American.

That’s why we passed the Affordable Care Act.

Now, we weren’t the first administration that sought to address this problem.  In the hundred years since Teddy Roosevelt first endorsed health care reform, at least eight presidents tried to tackle the challenge of unaffordable care.  Over time, the conventional wisdom became that it was too politically difficult—that there were too many powerful interests aligned against change.

And when President Obama took office, every single one of those doubters resurfaced.  They said ‘slow down,’ ‘let’s think smaller,’ ‘let’s put this off for another day.’

But there were others—including many in this room—who said: ‘no, we can’t slow down,’ who said ‘we’re tired of thinking small—we need to think big,’ who said ‘let’s travel the difficult road of progress, because we can’t wait another generation for affordable health care.’  And three years ago, at long last, your voices were heard.

The Affordable Care Act isn’t just another law.  It’s the culmination of decades of work—the kind of historic step forward for equality and opportunity that most of us may see only once or twice in our lifetimes.

And we’re already seeing the difference it’s made.

Because of the law, insurance companies can no longer deny coverage to children because of a preexisting health condition.  More than three million young people have gained coverage under their parents’ health plan.  Fifty-four million adults with private insurance can now get essential preventive care without a co-pay or deductible.  And in 2012 alone, nearly 2.8 million seniors on Medicare saved an average of more than $650 each on their prescriptions.

This progress has been shared by all Americans.  But it’s been especially beneficial to those communities that have historically been hit hardest by lack of access to care.

Take Helen, a grandmother I met in West Philadelphia.  She found herself in Medicare’s prescription drug coverage gap known as the donut hole.  And with seven different medications, the costs added up.

Now, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, Helen receives a 53 percent discount on brand-name drugs.  It doesn’t fix everything, but it’s enough of a difference that she can help her grandson with his education.  It’s enough of a difference to help her breathe just a little easier.  That’s what Helen and millions more Americans have gained.

But with so much misinformation out there—and with millions of dollars being spent to spread that misinformation as widely as possible—we need trusted voices to help make sure people know about the new benefits available to them.

And that’s where you come in.  Somewhere in America today, there’s a boy with sickle cell anemia whose parents don’t know insurance companies can no longer turn him away.  There’s a woman putting off a mammogram because she doesn’t know that her co-pay is now zero dollars.  There’s a senior choosing which pills to skip because she doesn’t know she can get discounts to help her afford her medications.

We need your help to get these people the information they need to take advantage of the full benefits of this law.  And that’s just the start of the work ahead of us.

Over the next year, the health care law will expand coverage to millions of Americans.  Right now, new Health Insurance Marketplaces are being set up in every state.  Starting on October 1st, these Marketplaces will give families and small business owners a whole new way to find coverage that fits their budget.

They’ll be able to see their premiums and deductibles will be before they enroll.  They’ll be free from discrimination against pre-existing conditions.  They’ll be eligible for tax credits that give them a break on costs if they don’t qualify for Medicaid, but can’t afford private coverage on their own.

And in light of the work I’ve been doing with the Vice President, I think it’s also important to point out that under the law, 65 million Americans will also benefit from extended federal parity protections for mental health care. 

But the truth is that just making coverage available isn’t enough.

About half of all uninsured adults today are young and healthy.  If you have children in their twenties like I do, you know that getting health insurance is not always the first priority for this demographic.  Other uninsured Americans have understandably come to believe that they’ll never have access to affordable coverage and have given up trying.

These are the people we need to reach.  And we need your help to do it.

You see these people every day.  They’re your friends and neighbors, your co-workers and congregations.  Starting tomorrow, they’ll be able to go to HealthCare.gov to check their eligibility, compare coverage options, and choose the plan that works best for them.  But they won’t go unless they know that new options are available to them.

The Affordable Care Act has opened the door to expanded coverage for tens of millions of Americans.  But only community leadership can help them walk through that door.  And that requires local action.  It requires direct engagement from community leaders like you—and I am asking you to reach them, because we can’t do it alone.

Every time you work with members of your community, I want you to talk to them about coverage.  And I want you to get them talking to their friends about coverage.  Don’t just tell them it’s available—tell them why it’s so important, what it means for their financial security and their peace of mind.

At the same time, many states will be expanding their Medicaid programs under the law.  Some Governors have already announced their intentions.  Others are still making up their minds.  These decisions will affect whether millions of working Americans get coverage or not.  But the effects will also go much deeper.

You know all too well the consequences when people in your communities go without coverage.  You see it in emergency rooms filled with patients who didn’t get preventive care.  You see it in prisons filled with people who lacked access to mental health services.  You see it in unemployment offices filled with those who couldn’t receive treatment for their chronic conditions.

You know the costs of failing to provide affordable coverage.  But you also know the broad benefits that can come from increasing access to health insurance.  So you can help make sure decision-makers know exactly what’s at stake when it comes to expanding Medicaid.

The time to deliver this message is now.  Over the next year, I’ll be traveling around the country to spread the word along with other senior health officials.  We need to educate.  We need to motivate.  And we need you to be our partners in this effort.

One of the things Dr. King taught us is that change requires more than legislation—that it doesn’t “roll in on the wheels of inevitability.”  Progress isn’t automatic.

If we can’t get the people who need care signed up, then expanded access to coverage is meaningless.  If we can’t give every American access to affordable care, we will never correct a system in which peace of mind is a luxury reserved for only some of our families.  That correction can’t happen here in Washington.  It has to happen neighborhood by neighborhood, in our churches and community centers.  And it has to come from local leaders like you.

This is an opportunity we’ve spent a hundred years working for.  Now is our chance to see it through.

This shared work is why I stayed on.  It’s why I’ve never felt more energized about the work I’m doing.  And I hope you’re energized too.  As Dr. King implored: “Let us be dissatisfied until those who live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security.”

I know I can count on you.  After all, this isn’t the national conversation network.  This isn’t the national wait-and-see network.  This is the National Action Network—and that’s exactly what we need right now.

Thank you.