By Michael H. Cottman
“The bill I am signing will set in motion reforms that generations of Americans have fought for and marched for and hungered to see.”
– PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA
Sweeping change has come to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And the rest of America.
Seated in the West Wing of the White House, Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, talked in straightforward terms about how a $940 billion plan to overhaul the nation’s health care system will benefit millions of African-Americans.
And here’s a twist: Sebelius said she’s not interested in conducting any more government studies about racial disparities among African-Americans in health care.
In previous administrations, Sebelius said, there were far too many studies that showed African-Americans are suffering – and dying – disproportionally from illnesses like cancer, diabetes, strokes and heart disease.
“I don’t want more studies that go on a shelf,” Sebelius said in response to a question from BlackAmericaWeb.com last week. “I’m not interested in measuring the gap. I’m interested in closing the gap.”
This is a bold statement from Sebelius, a no-nonsense administrator who came to Washington after serving as governor of Kansas. She is one of the leading architects of Obama’s historic health care reform legislation that Obama signed into law Tuesday, the most impressive legislative victory of his presidency.
Sebelius is well aware that many politicians who came before her also vowed to reduce racial disparities in health care and came up empty.
But this is an aggressive administration, Sebelius said, which plans to spend some $11 billion for new community health centers in black and underserved communities across the nation. White House officials call the initiative an unprecedented opportunity to serve more patients, stimulate new jobs and meet the significant increase in demand for primary health care services for black residents.
The administration also plans to step-up its efforts to help recruit more African-American health care professionals – doctors and nurses – to work in black neighborhoods from coast to coast.
“This is what change looks like,” Obama said.
Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House advisor, told reporters Tuesday that as a result of the new health care bill, 7 million uninsured African-Americans will now have access to quality health care.
Civil rights activists are pleased with the new health care package, in part, because there are senior black advisors, like Jarrett, at the White House who are now talking about health care from a black perspective – a rare observation about the West Wing.
“The suffering in the African-American community is more pronounced than most,” Jarrett said. “This is landmark reform that will benefit our entire country for generations, and African-Americans, who face some of the toughest challenges with costs and access to care, will feel the impact now and long into the future.”
She said one in five African-Americans do not have regular doctors; blacks are twice as likely as whites to use hospital emergency rooms, and African-Americans generally spend a higher percentage of their income on health care costs compared to whites.
But now, Jarrett said, the new health care legislation will benefit African-Americans by preventing insurance companies from denying coverage to patients who have pre-existing conditions like diabetes – and, in some cases, even domestic abuse.
Starting this year, small businesses that choose to offer coverage will begin to receive tax credits of up to 35 percent of premiums to help make employee coverage more affordable, and adults who are uninsured because of pre-existing conditions will have access to affordable insurance through a temporary high-risk pool.
The bill will also provide help for early retirees by creating a temporary re-insurance program to help offset the costs of expensive premiums for employers and retirees age 55-64. In addition, new private plans will be required to provide free preventive care: No co-payments and no deductibles for preventive services. And beginning January 1, 2011, Medicare will do the same.
Republicans on Tuesday were criticizing the health care bill, and some conservatives are still trying to find ways to derail the legislation. No Republicans voted for the bill, and they insist that the legislation will raise taxes and substantially increase the federal deficit. They say it will cause millions of employers to drop health benefits for their workers, hire over 16,000 IRS agents to enforce the government’s health care mandates and require small businesses and medical innovators to pay higher taxes.
“We’ve heard a lot today about how historic this bill is, and it’s true,” Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement. “It is an historic betrayal of the clear will of the American people. It is an historic loss of liberty.”
Steele was unclear which “American people” to whom he was referring.
Meanwhile, in her interview with several black journalists last week, Sebelius said the government plans “a very aggressive outreach campaign” to African-Americans about getting tested for HIV/AIDS. She’s concerned, she said, that some black people have gotten complacent because there’s a perception that AIDS is no longer “a killer disease.”
The Obama administration budget includes more than $3 billion, an increase of $70 million, for Center for Disease Control and the Health Resources and Services Administration to enhance HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment.
Sebelius is also working to develop family strategies and community outreach in areas of obesity, smoking and exercise.
The landmark health care legislation that Obama signed into law Tuesday is not a blueprint for perfection.
It will take four years to fully implement, but it will extend medical coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans, and it’s a far more effective plan than what Republicans were offering – which was not much.