Remarks by Secretary Xavier Becerra at the Health Affairs Journal Virtual Symposium on Racism and Health

7 months ago

As Prepared for Delivery

Good afternoon, everyone. Let me start by thanking:

  • Alan Weil, Editor-in-Chief of Health Affairs;
  • Richard E. Besser, President and CEO, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation;
  • Rachel Hardeman of the University of Minnesota; and
  • José Figueroa of Harvard University.

It’s great to join you here today alongside so many partners fighting to realize Cesar Chavez and Dr. King’s dreams of a more just society.

Dr. King famously called injustice in health the most inhumane and shocking form of inequality.

The past two years of this pandemic have underscored that inequality in brutal detail, especially for communities of color.

COVID-19 has killed Black Americans, Latinos, and Indigenous Americans at two times the rate as White Americans. And evidence suggests that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are three times more likely to contract COVID-19, compared to white people and nearly twice as likely to die from the disease.

And beyond this pandemic, health inequity continues to put our most vulnerable populations at risk.

We can and must do more.

That’s why at HHS, we’re putting equity at the core of everything we do.

In the last year, we’ve made vaccines free and widely available to all Americans. 

We issued guidance for improving access to COVID-19 vaccines so that no matter your zip code, no matter your background, if you’re eligible – there’s a vaccine that’s in reach for you.

Our Public Affairs division continues to engage people in hard-to-reach communities. We routinely mobilize a network of 17,000+ volunteers, including 1,000 physicians, to boost vaccine confidence. And to date, our Public Education Campaign has released over 1500 ads in 14 languages.

We’ve invested over $7.3 billion in community health centers which have administered nearly 19 million vaccines, with 68 percent administered to racial and ethnic minority patients.

And since 2021, we have invested $18 billion from Provider Relief Funds to support COVID mitigation across rural pockets of the country.

All of this work has paid dividends.

As of today, 80 percent of Black adults and 77 percent of Latino adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to 75% of white adults. That’s a twenty-point increase for both Black and Latino adults since May 2021.

This progress didn’t happen in a vacuum and it didn’t happen overnight. It happened because the Biden-Harris Administration made it a priority to center equity in our COVID-19 response.

Beyond COVID-19, we’ve also expanded health care access for millions of Americans.

During last year’s Special Enrollment Period and this year’s Open Enrollment, HHS invested in Navigators to help people get covered and to provide education and information to communities of color and rural communities.

Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, millions of lower- and middle-income families of color who enrolled in health insurance marketplaces saw their premiums lowered or eliminated.

Existing consumers saved an average of $67 per person per month on their premiums, and 4 out of 5 consumers were able to access a plan for $10 or less per month.

As a result of this critical work, a record 14.5 million people received health coverage through the Marketplaces, and nearly 6 million Americans newly gained health coverage in 2021 across the country.

But that’s not all.

Over the course of the pandemic, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) enrollment grew 14 percent, from 71 million to roughly 82 million people, the largest single increase in the program’s history.

And among all of these actions, I am especially proud of our work to improve maternal outcomes, especially among Black mothers.

My wife, Carolina, is a high-risk OBGYN who has devoted her career to improving pregnancy care and outcomes. And she always reminds me of her favorite motto: “Willing is not enough; we must do.”

I am proud to say that at HHS, we are doing the work every single day.

In the past year, we’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars and have approved extensions of postpartum coverage for parents in Illinois, Missouri, Georgia, New Jersey, and Virginia.

We know how critical this coverage can be. In fact, our Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation released a report in December showing exactly that.

The study found that if all states adopt 12 months of postpartum coverage, 100 percent of those enrolled in Medicaid during pregnancy would be eligible for 12 months of postpartum Medicaid, compared to 52 percent under current law.

This represents approximately 720,000 people annually with expanded postpartum coverage—including over 220,000 Latino and over 130,000 Black beneficiaries. That, my friends, is a game-changer.

And that’s just a snapshot of our work.

We’re also fighting for equity in other areas, including:

  • Establishing the new Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE) to protect vulnerable communities from climate disasters;
  • Funding the Indian Health Service (IHS) in record numbers to live up to tribal obligations;
  • Investing in child care and early childhood education to prepare the next generation of American leaders; and
  • Establishing the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (WHIAANHPI) to promote equity and fight back against the horrific anti-Asian racism that has become rampant during this pandemic.

I’m deeply proud of the progress we’ve made. But I also know our work isn’t finished. We will continue to be vigilant in our fight to advance the health and well-being of the American people. We will keep fighting to pass Build Back Better. And we will keep making equity and justice our North Stars, because we know health care is about more than mending bones or dispensing pills.

It’s about giving people access to peace of mind, to economic security, and to a brighter future.

That’s how we build back better.

Let’s do it together. Thank you.

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