White House Conference on LGBT Health
Kathleen Sebelius was sworn in as the 21st Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on April 28, 2009.
February 16, 2012
Good morning. It’s great to be here with you in Philadelphia for the first in a series of White House LGBT conferences we’ll be hosting around the country. The goal of these conferences is partly for us to talk about some of the work we’ve been doing that might be of interest to you. But it’s also an opportunity for you to share your knowledge and suggestions with us. And I hope you’ll do that as the day goes on.
Today, I want to talk about one of the core principles that guide this Administration: fairness.
As you heard the President say in his State of the Union, we believe America is at its best when everyone lives and works by the same set of rules and all Americans get a fair shot at success.
That idea is not new. It’s written into the Declaration of Independence. And it’s at the heart of the American dream: the belief that if you work hard, if you're responsible in your community, if you take care of your family, then that’s how you should be judged. Not by what you look like, not by how you worship, not by where you come from, and not by whom you love.
This belief means ensuring that LGBT Americans have the same protections and opportunities as their neighbors, colleagues, and family members. And over the last three years, this Administration has undertaken a broad agenda to do just that.
Since the President took office, we’ve ensured that Americans can serve and protect their country no matter whom they love. The Justice Department has stopped defending the constitutionality of the so-called ‘Defense of Marriage Act.’ We’ve fought for, and secured, the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Junior Hate Crimes Act to make assaults based on sexual orientation or gender identity a federal hate crime.
And we’ve ended an outdated and misguided policy that banned individuals with HIV/AIDS from entering the U.S. – a policy that broke apart families, hurt our economy, and went against our fundamental values.
These are important achievements that many of you have spent years fighting for. But know that there are still many areas where we can do more to ensure equal opportunity for LGBT Americans. One of those areas is health care.
When this Administration took office, the health care system wasn’t working for a lot of Americans. But it was especially broken for LGBT Americans.
Given the discrimination they sometimes faced in the workplace, LGBT Americans often had a harder time getting access to employment-based coverage. And many childless LGBT adults with low incomes fell through the cracks in our health insurance market, unable to afford private insurance but unable to qualify for Medicaid either.
Even LGBT Americans who had insurance often struggled to get the best care in a health care system where some health care providers didn’t understand – or didn’t want to understand – their needs.
That wasn’t right. All Americans, regardless of where they live or their age, sex, race, sexual orientation, or gender identity, have a basic right to get the care they need.
That’s why we fought for the Affordable Care Act, a law that will ensure for the first time that all Americans have access to quality, affordable health insurance, and better care. The law makes a wide range of improvements. But today I want to tell you about five key new benefits that all LGBT Americans need to know about.
First, the law is protecting LGBT Americans from many of the worst abuses of the insurance industry. A year and half ago, insurers could cancel your coverage when you got sick just because you made a mistake on your application. Or put a lifetime limit on the amount of care they’d pay for, meaning your coverage often ran out when you needed it most.
Thanks to the new Patient’s Bill of Rights, these practices and other abuses have now been banned.
Second, the law is helping millions of LGBT Americans gain access to the care they need to get and stay healthy. Because of the law, most Americans with health insurance now have access to free preventive care including cancer screenings, vaccinations, blood pressure and cholesterol screenings, and HIV testing.
And as of last fall, insurers can no longer deny coverage to children because of pre-existing health conditions – a protection that will extend to every single American in 2014. Similarly, insurers will no longer be able to turn someone away just because he or she is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
The third thing the law is doing is bringing competition and transparency to the health insurance market. Under the law, we created a new consumer website healthcare.gov where, for the first time, you can compare all the insurance plans in your market and find the one that works best for you.
And earlier this year, we added a tool to make sure LGBT families can specifically search for plans that cover same-sex domestic partners. When we first launched the site, this was one of the first suggestions we received from LGBT stakeholders, and we made sure it happened.
In two years, LGBT Americans will have even better access to care when a new competitive insurance marketplace made up of state based Affordable Insurance Exchanges is created. This will mean that whether you lose your job, or change jobs, or retire early, or start a business, you’ll have somewhere to go to get affordable coverage.
The fourth key point to remember about this law is that it makes historic investments in our health care workforce in the communities where it’s needed most. With new resources from the law, we’re adding new community health centers and helping existing health centers expand their hours and add new services.
We’re also placing thousands of primary care providers in underserved communities. And through our Health Resources and Services Administration, we continue to train these providers in culturally competent care for LGBT patients.
Finally, the law helps us better understand the specific health challenges LGBT Americans face. Last year, our department released a plan to integrate sexual orientation- and gender identity-specific questions into our national surveys, allowing us, for the first time, to gather the data we need to strengthen our efforts to improve LGBT health.
For all these reasons, the Affordable Care Act is a huge step forward in closing LGBT health disparities.
But, when it comes to fighting for the equal rights of LGBT Americans, this Administration hasn’t waited for Congress to act. What we’ve found is that we can make a huge difference by simply using the administrative power we already have, and over the last three years, we’ve put it work.
I’m sure that many people in this room know the story of Janice Langbehn and her partner Lisa Pond.
While on a family vacation, Lisa experienced a brain aneurysm and was rushed to a local hospital. When Janice arrived with the couple’s children they were denied access to Lisa. Janice was Lisa’s partner of 18 years. They were raising three beautiful children together. But in the opinion of that hospital, they were not a family.
Over the next few hours, Lisa Pond died alone as her partner and children desperately tried to get to her side.
As a daughter, a wife, and a mother, it pains me to think of the anguish that Janice and her family went through in the hours, days, and weeks that followed Lisa’s death. And in 2010, under a memorandum issued by the President, HHS used our authority to make sure this never happens again by establishing full visitation rights for LGBT patients.
And our efforts haven’t stopped there. When confronted with the tragic suicides of LGBT teens around the country who had been bullied, this Administration launched a historic effort to stop bullying of LGBT children and youth in their homes, schools, and communities.
For the first time, we put a national spotlight on this issue when President Obama held the first ever White House Conference on Bullying Prevention. And that same day, we launched a new website called StopBullying.gov, a one-stop shop where kids, teens, parents, and educators can go online to learn about preventing or stopping bullying.
Our department also continues to support organizations around the country that are finding innovative ways to improve the health of LGBT Americans. Last year, for example, we awarded nearly $250,000 to the Fenway Institute in Boston to create a National Training and Technical Assistance Center that will help community health centers and their providers learn the best ways to provide culturally competent care to LGBT patients.
And we’ve committed to turning the tide in our nation’s fight against HIV and AIDS, a disease that has taken far too many of our LGBT brothers and sisters. When this Administration came into office, our domestic HIV/AIDS strategy was basically to keep doing what we were doing. We weren’t adapting fast enough. Agencies and programs weren’t working together well enough. We had lost some of the urgency we had in the 90s.
And yet 50,000 Americans continued to become infected with HIV each year –more than half of them were gay men. In some large cities, half of the African-American gay men were HIV positive.
Under President Obama’s leadership, we adopted a national strategy that has breathed new life into the fight against HIV and AIDS by focusing our resources on the populations that are most affected. The result is more momentum behind our domestic HIV/AIDS efforts today than we’ve had for nearly a decade.
We can’t make up for years of neglect with one policy or one grant. But collectively, these efforts are putting us on a path to ensuring all LGBT Americans get the care they deserve.
And this is just one department. Throughout the Administration, every department is looking for these same opportunities to erase disparities for LGBT Americans. These efforts may not make the headlines. But added together, these administrative changes can make a huge impact.
We know there is work left to do. Around the country, there are still too many places where fairness is not the rule.
But I am confident that the progress of the last three years will continue because ultimately, the goal we are working towards is the goal that’s at the heart of what this country stands for: the idea that every American, no matter who they are or where they come from, should have the same chance to reach their full potential.
In the last three years, we have begun to push open doors that seemed like they would remain shut forever. And in the months to come, I look forward to continuing to work with all of you to open even more doors and bring our nation closer to its highest ideals.