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104th NAACP Annual Conference

As prepared for delivery 

Orlando, Florida
July 16, 2013

Thank you, Hilary, for that introduction. Thank you, President Jealous, Chairwoman Brock, and the Board of Directors, for inviting me. And thank you all for being here and for your service with one of the most important civil rights organizations in America.

Before I begin, I’d like to take a moment and thank our Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, whose last day as America’s doctor is today. Dr. Benjamin served with distinction – leading our first-of-its-kind National Prevention Strategy that helps move our country from one focused on sickness and disease to one based on wellness. She’s also led our Public Health Service Commissioned Corps during public health emergencies. I’m grateful for her service, and pleased she will be here tomorrow.

I want to also thank Secretary Donovan and Attorney General Holder for their leadership and collaboration in President Obama’s Cabinet. We know that housing, health, and a just society are key elements in the President’s opportunity agenda to strengthen the middle class and help more people join the middle class.

Creating more possibilities for everyone to reach his or her full potential is why we all get up and go to work every day. That’s how we bridge the meaning of our inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to the realities of our time – as President Obama discussed in his second inaugural address.

And today, I’d like to talk about how our Department – the Department of Health and Human Services – is moving forward on the unfinished work of securing those rights. The rights may be self-evident, but they are not self-executing, as the President reminded us after a historic re-election that all of you helped make happen.

One critical step we’re taking is expanding quality early education for our children.

We know that when children aren’t safe and secure and in a learning environment, they can fall far behind their peers. But when they have social, emotional, and educational support in their earliest years, the benefits can last a lifetime.

Like with many of you and your children, I’ve seen the importance of early childhood development with my own sons, who were 2 and 5 when I was first elected to the Kansas legislature. I see it now as a grandmother of an 11-month-old grandson, with two working parents.

That’s why we’re working so closely with our great partners in the Department of Education, led by my good friend, Arne Duncan, to strengthen and expand early learning programs, especially for low-income families.

We’re expanding home-visiting programs to support new parents and caregivers. We’re strengthening Early Head Start and Head Start to help more children develop critical social and emotional skills that make a lifetime difference. Our babies and toddlers can become lifelong learners if their parents and caregivers can help them make a great start.

The President’s historic plan for birth to age 5 also includes providing every child in America access to affordable preschool, which helps our children perform better in school and saves hard-working families hard-earned dollars in daycare costs.

We know early learning is a child’s gateway to a better life. And it benefits us all. We all benefit from our young people going to school, starting a career, and achieving their dreams.

But we need your help reinforcing that message with policymakers and the public, and highlighting what’s at stake.

If we shortchange our children, we shortchange our future.  We can’t let that happen.

And that brings me to another area of unfinished work that does right by our children and keeps the doors of opportunity open to them. We do our children and country no justice if we do nothing to stop the violence that plagues our communities.

I know that’s been on our minds too often recently, but especially over the last couple of days. The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy for his family, but also for our country. And so are the tragedies of all the children we have lost because of gun violence before and since Trayvon was killed.

We pray for his family and respect their call for calm reflection. And we follow the President in asking ourselves if we’re doing all we can to prevent future tragedies – from mass school shootings to the daily violence on street corners – from happening again. 

That is a job for all of us. We can all widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities.

At our Department we’re asking how public health agencies like the CDC and NIH can better research and monitor gun violence-related injuries and deaths. We want to better determine risk factors and help state and local partners develop effective violence prevention programs.

And while we know that the majority of Americans who struggle with a mental illness are not violent, we’re working to make it easier for young people, adults, and families struggling with mental illness to seek help. I encourage all of you to engage in our community conversations that are part of our effort to let people know that treatment works and that recovery is real.

The President hasn’t given up on pushing forward on commonsense gun violence prevention efforts. You shouldn’t either. We need your voices. We need your action. Now is the time.

And now is also the time to fulfill a promise of equality for tens of millions of Americans denied a basic freedom and opportunity to live a healthy life. From day one of this presidency, we’ve worked with all of our assets to reduce the health inequality that Dr. King called the most shocking and inhumane form of injustice of all.

We’re investing in community health centers and workforce programs to bring thousands more doctors and nurses to the neighborhoods where they are most needed. We’re recruiting public and private sector partners to help promote active lifestyles and healthy eating through the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative.

I was at the White House with Valerie Jarrett yesterday to observe the third anniversary of the President’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy. It has given us a new sense of direction to our fight against the epidemic, focusing more resources on the communities that are hardest hit – many of which are communities of color.

But there’s probably no bigger step toward improving the health of communities of color than expanding access to affordable health coverage – and that’s what the Affordable Care Act does.

Now, no matter what you’re hearing out there, let’s remember some facts. The debate in Washington is over. The Supreme Court has issued its decision. The people have spoken. President Obama was re-elected.

And to paraphrase Stevie Wonder, the Affordable Care Act is signed, sealed, and it’s delivering.

More than 7 million African Americans with private insurance can now get preventive services for free – including blood pressure and cholesterol checks, cancer screenings and flu shots. All of this helps reduce the incidence of diseases – many of them preventable – which disproportionately affect communities of color.

Four and a half million elderly and disabled African Americans on Medicare – your grandmothers and grandfathers – now have access to free wellness visits and more affordable prescription drugs.

More than 500,000 young African American adults – your sons and daughters – who were previously uninsured are now covered by their parents’ plan.

For all the women in the audience, this is a new day!  Being a woman will no longer be a pre-existing condition for insurance companies! No longer will women have to worry about being denied care or charged more because of a pregnancy or breast cancer. Millions more women will have new options for coverage – already women now have access to critical services like contraception and cancer screenings with no extra out-of-pocket costs.

When we talk about health insurance, it’s not just a card in a wallet. It’s security. It’s peace of mind.  And it’s not just about “insurance.”  It’s also about “health.”

So the first thing that people should know is that the health law is making that health coverage stronger for the majority of Americans who have it already – and that’s about 85% of all Americans.  

And the second thing to know is that for the 15% percent of Americans who don’t have coverage at all, or for Americans who buy their own insurance right now and aren’t happy with it, they’ll have better options come this fall.

Beginning October 1, a new Health Insurance Marketplace will open for enrollment in every state, with benefits starting in January 2014.

All plans in the Marketplace must cover an essential set of benefits, including doctor visits, prescription drugs, and mental health services. Discrimination based on gender or pre-existing conditions, like diabetes or cancer, will be outlawed. And many individuals, families and small businesses will qualify for a break on the costs of their monthly premiums.

For the first time in history, insurance companies will have to compete for business based on price and service – not lock out, dump out, or price out of the market anyone who might get sick. Those days are over!

To enroll in the Marketplace, all you have to do is visit HealthCare.gov, where you’ll find simple information that helps you find a plan that fits your budget.

HealthCare.gov will also help people find out about Medicaid coverage in their state – and this is another critical piece of the puzzle to ensure more Americans get the care they need.

Some of you live in states where the Governor and legislature have already decided to expand Medicaid. The door is open and we will keep working until all states sign up.

That’s because if Medicaid isn’t expanded in more states, millions of working people and some of our most vulnerable families could be left with no source of affordable health coverage. And speaking as a former governor, since the federal government will pay 100 percent of the costs for the first three years, and at least 90 percent thereafter, this deal is too good to pass up.

But here’s the key point. Just because people have the opportunity to get new coverage – whether through the Marketplace or Medicaid expansion – doesn’t mean they know about it. 

A big share of the uninsured is young and healthy. If you have young adult children like I do, you know that getting health insurance is not always their first priority. I sometimes don’t know what their first priority is, but it certainly isn’t insurance.

But we also know there are people who have been uninsured or underinsured for so long that they simply don’t believe that affordable coverage will ever be within reach.

They are busy working hard or going to school. They worry about the health of the ones they care for instead of their own. Each of you probably knows someone who wants that weight off their shoulders – who wants that new coverage so they can live, work, and reach their dreams.

And in less than three months, we have the chance to help our family, friends, and neighbors finally find that security and peace of mind. But we can’t do it alone. We need your help.

To get ready for October 1 when the Marketplace opens for enrollment, you can visit HealthCare.gov today to sign up for information and updates.

It’s not your typical government website – it’s much easier to use and understand.  And it’s the best way to find out about those benefits that will be available as early as January 1, 2014. There’s a web chat feature to help answer your questions – just like what you see when you’re shopping online. And if you don’t have access to a computer, there’s a 24/7 customer call center ready to answer your questions in 150 languages.

And know that we’re doing everything we can to help spread the word. We’re partnering with local libraries and community health centers to help people sign up and enroll in October. We’re supporting efforts to hire people who will work in many of your communities to educate your friends and neighbors about their options. Anton Gunn from our Department spoke at your Health Leaders Luncheon yesterday on ways your local branches can get involved.

And I’ve been traveling the country along with other senior health officials, visiting churches and holding town halls with African American community leaders to reach as many people as we can.

We know lots of people need information. They just want to know where to go to find it. And you can make all the difference!

In this room are educators, community leaders, parents, and grandparents. We need your voices and your help with outreach and education. So start spreading the word.

Download toolkits and customize flyers to hang up in local businesses like restaurants, barbershops, and beauty salons. Share them with your fraternities and sororities.

Some of you are health leaders: doctors, nurses, and counselors: Educate your patients about their rights and new coverage options. If you’re a pastor or first lady, a deacon or a health ministry leader, few voices are more powerful than those from the ones we trust – use your voice to educate and motivate.

After 100 years of conversation about health reform, change is finally coming. And we only get this chance once in a lifetime. We need the NAACP to continue to be a champion for coverage to help remove one of the most persistent forms of inequality once and for all.

The Affordable Care Act is the most powerful law for reducing health disparities since Medicare and Medicaid were created in 1965, the same year the Voting Rights Act was also enacted.

That significance hits especially close to home. My father was a Congressman from Cincinnati who voted for each of those critical civil rights laws, and who represented a district near where the late Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth lived and preached. 

The same arguments against change, the same fear and misinformation that opponents used then are the same ones opponents are spreading now. “This won’t work,” “slow down,” “let’s wait” – they say.

But history shows that upholding our founding principles demands continuous work toward a more perfect union. Bridging the meaning our inalienable rights to the realities of our time requires speaking up and standing up for them. And it requires the kind of work that the NAACP has done for more than a century to move us forward.

You showed it in the fight against lynching and the fight for desegregation. You showed it by ensuring inalienable rights are secured in the courtroom and at the ballot box. And you showed it by supporting a health law 100 years in the making.

With each step forward, you said to forces of the status quo, “This will work,” “we can’t slow down” We can’t wait,” “we won’t turn back.”

And those voices of progress form the echo we hear and honor this year.

They echo from church bells rung at midnight 150 years ago to educate our nation of a people’s emancipation. They echo from a speech on our nation’s mall 50 years ago next month about the promise of our nation’s dream. And they still echo and guide us today in a second term of a historic presidency.

So let us seize this moment. We can’t slow down. We can’t wait. We won’t turn back.

We move forward.

Thank you.