Kathleen Sebelius and Tony Wafford
NATIONAL ACTION NETWORK WELCOME U.S. SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES KATHLEEN SEBELIUS
Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, joined a panel of top healthcare advocates, practitioners, activists, and policy makers who outlined the future of Black healthcare during the National Action Network’s (NAN) annual convention in New York April 14-17. Tony Wafford, NAN’s National Director of Health and Wellness, invited Sec. Sebelius to the “Healthcare Treatment: Developing and Sustaining a Healthy Mind and a Healthy Body” seminar to explain some of the programs under President Barack Obama’s health reform bill and what they really mean for the community. Her visit came one day after the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality released two reports–the “2009 National Healthcare Disparities Report” and the “National Healthcare Quality Report.”
“The snapshot of the reports yesterday goes up through 2007 but it sets a baseline for what we’re looking at. In every category you want to find, there is a difference in treatment, a difference in outcome, a difference in disease, a difference in chronic disease,” Sec. Sebelius said. Passage of the Patient Protection Affordable Care Act will help close that gap, get everyone a medical home, and ensure coverage, she emphasized.
According to Sec. Sebelius, some of the benefits of the law will hit right away, such as insurance companies not being able to dump people out of their plans by putting caps on coverage. Parents will be able to carry their children up to age 26 on their plans. And companies will no longer be allowed to refuse coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.
“This wasn’t just a perfunctory meeting where the Secretary came in, pontificated, and appeased the masses and kept going. We’re going to continue meeting,” Wafford said.
Before the panel discussion transitioned to the impact of HIV/AIDS and solutions, Sec. Sebelius announced that her department will expand its Office of Minority Health, which focuses on the minority work force and health issues, to every agency and department that reaches out to folk, such as the Food and Drug Administration, for instance.
She acknowledged that there is a need for more health care providers, but more importantly, there needs to be more minority health care providers. Wafford said that is why he and Rev. Sharpton are headed to Washington, D.C. in May. “We’re going to take our next steps to create, help shape and craft messages, programs, and projects that resonate with Black people, because we understand that you can’t use a White model to solve a Black problem. We’re going to give them some Black models,” he informed.
Other stellar panelists that addressed HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, dental care, and mental health services included: Jo Valentine, Chief, Syphilis Elimination & STD Disparities Unit, Robert Bailey, II, Project Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ACT Against AIDS Leadership Initiative, Cleo Manago, Founder, AmASSI Group, Dr. M. Monica Sweeney, City of New York Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, Dr. Joseph Edwards, Director of Diabetes, New York, and C. Virginia Fields, President/CEO, National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS.
As coordinator for NAN’s “I Choose Life” initiative, which is part of its participation in the CDC’s ACT! Against AIDS program to raise awareness and educate Blacks across the country about HIV/AIDS, Wafford said NAN was blessed as always to have a powerhouse of folks to address all of the issues of health that are killing the Black community.
“A major focus is on HIV/AIDS and clearly because we put it together as a network, it is incumbent upon us to make it happen. The people are there. They have the information, and I’m excited about the next steps, which are to connect with people, give them the information, give them the assignments, and follow through,” Wafford stated.
A major reason for rising cases of HIV/AIDS in the Black community, according to Dr. Sweeney, is that people are in denial because they exhibit behaviors that transmit HIV and they do not think they are susceptible to become infected. “If you’ve ever had sex, even one time, you need to get an HIV test because HIV is transmitted sexually…age is not a vaccine…13-19-year-olds in our community are becoming infected. We need to change our denial,” Dr. Sweeney emphasized.
According to Bailey, every 9.5 minutes, someone in the United States is infected with HIV. One in 16 Black men and one in 30 Black women will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. He assumed, he said, as he scanned the room, that people attend conventions like NAN’s because they care about Black folks, and because they are tired of hearing that Blacks are number one for another something that is negative.
“But the great thing is that HIV is 100 percent preventable. So unlike some of the other things we can do all we can and still develop diabetes, hypertension, this is one thing that we don’t necessarily have to develop,” he said.
Bailey cited the CDC’s ACT! Against AIDS Leadership Initiative as one of the successes. It is a partnership with 14 historically Black organizations, like NAN, and it integrates HIV in all that they do so it is looked at, not just as a health issue, but as a social justice, business, faith, education, and media issue.
“HIV plays a part wherever we live, play, work, and learn … This room is more packed than it was last year, so we’re seeing that success has been done,” Bailey acknowledged.
For Valentine, an important way to curb HIV infections is to tackle the hidden epidemic of STDs within the Black community. Another set of epidemics involving sexual health that is running rampant in the community includes syphilis, gonorrhea, herpes, and chlamydia, she said. People believe those diseases went away, so their first reactions are of surprise and then frustrated because they feel nobody has warned them.
“Partly, we’ve been afraid to say something…there’s this shame attached to STDs that somehow HIV’s managed to get past a little bit. People are wearing ribbons on their lapels for HIV prevention but you don’t see the spiral key for the germ that causes gonorrhea or the herpes virus, for instance, as a badge of honor. There are no groups of persons living with herpes who are out there rallying and making issues and bringing advocacy points to people’s attention…,” Valentine pointed out.
She insisted that the message of stopping the spread of these conditions must be one of empowerment, not shame, because they can be cured, she said.
Check this website or www.ichoose-life.com for an update on NAN’s health projects with Sec. Sebelius and other commitments developed during the convention.