Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius pushed for local community and faith leaders to help implement President Barack Obama's health care law. Sebelius spoke at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Day Jr. luncheon. (Kimberly Railey/Medill)

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius pushed for local community and faith leaders to help implement President Barack Obama’s health care law. Sebelius spoke at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Day Jr. luncheon. (courtesy of Health and Human Services)

WASHINGTON – Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius urged community leaders Tuesday to ensure blacks and Latinos take advantage of the Obama administration’s health   care law.

During her address at an annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day luncheon, Sebelius praised the Affordable Care Act while encouraging activists to spread information about its benefits to their communities. Without their efforts, she said, minorities may lack knowledge on how the law could be helpful to them. In 2011, 7.7 million African-Americans were uninsured, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Change requires more than legislation,” she said. “If we can’t get people who need care signed up, then expanded access to health care is meaningless.”

Sebelius’ remarks, delivered to an audience supportive of health care reform, were intended to spotlight popular elements of the federal health law, a signature part of President Barack Obama’s first-term agenda that remains controversial. According to a June Pew Research Center survey, 48 percent of the American public disapproves of the law, while 43 percent likes it. Many fear the law gives too much power to the federal government in health care matters.

Last June, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of most of the law, and the number of uninsured people who gain coverage will be one sign of success.

In her speech, Sebelius called for leaders to immerse themselves in conversations with their neighbors to ensure that uninsured Americans know how to get affordable care. Despite some state politicians’ calls to the contrary, she added, an insurance marketplace will be set up in every state to broaden coverage. On Oct. 1, open enrollment will begin for new insurance benefits.

While touting the law, Sebelius cautioned that significant action at the local level is necessary to carry it out. She said traditionally underserved health care groups, such as young adults, do not understand the importance of health insurance and don’t make it a priority.

“We shouldn’t assume that they know how much peace of mind that it can provide,” she said. “We need to educate, we need to motivate and we need to engage and enroll people.”

Sebelius later recalled unsuccessful attempts by previous presidents to enact universal health care coverage. Obama, she said, marshaled significant political capital toward closing the health care gap, citing it as one of his foremost priorities when he took office four years ago.

Sebelius’ push for the health care law’s implementation came on the heels of a health initiative unveiled Tuesday by the National Action Network and Education for a Better America, which co-hosted the event. The plan aims to inform black communities about the importance of leading healthy lifestyles through programs such as free exercise classes at the New York City headquarters of NAN in Harlem, said EBA President Dominique Sharpton, daughter of the Rev. Al Sharpton.

The luncheon Tuesday comes on the actual birthday of King, the civil rights icon assassinated in 1968. Al Sharpton said earlier that Sebelius has been instrumental in promoting equal access to health care, one of King’s goals.

“Without equality in health, it’s impossible to have true equality in education and society at large,” he said.

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