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Remarks for Secretary Kathleen Sebelius

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Remarks for Secretary Kathleen Sebelius from the League of Women Voters 2010 Convention in Atlanta, Georgia on June 15, 2010

Thank you, Janis, for that nice introduction. Kansas women have a long history of leadership on women’s rights. Some of you probably know that the first local League of Women Voters chapter wasn’t in New York. And it wasn’t in Chicago or Washington, DC. It was in Wichita,Kansas.

We in Kansas are very proud of our role in the women’s suffrage movement. Kansas was also one of the first states where women could vote in local elections, one of the first states to give women the vote statewide, and one of the first states to ratify the 19th Amendment.

But my favorite story about the 19th Amendment comes from the middle of 1920 when it had already been ratified by 35 states. That meant they were one state short, and the feeling was that it would all come down to Tennessee.

So supporters and opponents all descended on Nashville for the vote in the Tennessee legislature. And they had a vigorous debate. The opponents claimed that if women got the right to vote, it would end the world as we knew it. To which I say: thank God it did.

But back then, the result was very much in doubt. And eventually, this huge, rambunctious debate came down to one state legislator, Harry Burn, who was expected to vote against the amendment. On the day of the vote, he even wore a red rose on his breast pocket, which was the symbol of the anti-suffrage movement.

But when his turn came on the floor, he voted yes – saying one word that gave a new voice to tens of millions of women around the country.

When he was asked why he voted yes afterward, he explained that in his shirt pocket, underneath the red rose, was a telegram from his mother, telling him to do the right thing.

For the last 90 years, the League of Women Voters have been the mothers, daughters, sisters – and now husbands, sons, and brothers too – telling America’s leaders to do the right thing.

When your neighbors want unbiased, straightforward information about the issues and candidates, they go to you.

In an age when it sometimes seems like political arguments are settled by who can yell louder, you give people a refuge where they can sit down and study the issues, talk them over with their neighbors, and make their own decision.

These values are at the heart of being a citizen in a democracy. Which is why, 90 years after it was founded, when so many other civic organizations have come and gone, the League of Women Voters is just as essential as it was in 1920.

In the years since then, you‘ve watched our country grow closer to its ideals. Many of the barriers that kept Americans – especially African-Americans – from voting have been torn down from poll taxes to literacy tests. You saw Congress pass the Motor Voter Act, which made it much easier for Americans to register to vote.

But there is still work left to be done.

When I was Governor of Kansas, for example, we were able to double the registration rates at motor vehicle agencies just by taking the paper and pencil registration system and making it electronic. This shows that small changes can make a big difference in terms of participation in our democracy.

That’s why the Obama administration fully supports the concept of offering voter registration services at Federal agencies, as permitted by the National Voter Registration Act.

Three states have already asked our department for help signing people up to vote, and we’re working with them now to determine next steps pursuant to the federal statute.

In the years to come, we will continue to work with groups like the League of Women Voters to secure Americans’ right to vote.

But you’ve always believed that what you do with your right the vote is just as important as having it.

Over the years, the League has strongly supported legislation that moves America forward – that expands opportunity, takes on big challenges, and carries the hope of a better future for our children and grandchildren.

That’s why you understood how important it was to pass the Affordable Care Act.

This is not a new fight. When Teddy Roosevelt ran for President in 1912, national health insurance reform was on his platform right next to giving women the right to vote.

Over the years, other Presidents tried. FDR thought about it. President Truman made it a priority. Presidents from Nixon to Clinton gave it a shot.

And every time, the forces of the status quo won out.

But this year was different. After years of feeling like they had less and less control over their health care, Americans came to believe that the most dangerous course, the riskiest course was doing nothing. And that we couldn’t put off common sense reform any longer. And with the help of groups like the League of Women Voters, we passed one of the great pieces of progressive legislation in American history.

Now, I know that no one has studied this issue more closely than you. But I want to take a few minutes to talk about what this law will mean for American families.

First, it means that no matter what happens, every American will have access to affordable health insurance. It doesn’t matter whether you lose your job or your spouse loses their job or you retire or you decide to start your own business or you have a preexisting condition, you’re going to be able to get health coverage.

This is going to give every American peace of mind. But it’s especially important for women.

As you know, women are more likely to work part-time. We’re more likely to work in areas like retail where employers often don’t offer health insurance. We’re more likely to depend on our spouses for health coverage.

Overall, less than half of women have the option of getting health insurance through their employer.

That means women have been vulnerable to ending up in an individual insurance market where your choice is often between one plan that costs too much and another that has huge gaps in coverage.

The Affordable Care Act will give these women better choices by creating a new health insurance marketplace where they’ll be able to easily find and compare plans.

You’re not going to have to ask “Where am I going to find health insurance?” ever again. And there will be generous tax credits to make sure everyone can afford these plans.

That’s one change.

A second is that the Affordable Care Act will hold insurance companies accountable with tough new consumer protections.

Before this law passed, insurance companies had almost all the power when it came to deciding whether you got insurance or what it covered.

If they decided you had a preexisting medical condition, they could refuse to cover you.

They could charge you up to 50 percent more just because you were a woman.

Even with these higher charges, these plans were often missing key benefits. Eighty percent of plans didn’t cover maternity care. And many of them made you pay a sizable co-pay for key preventive services like mammograms.

The result was that over the last two years, one in five women over fifty hasn’t received a mammogram. Given that the five-year survival rate for breast cancer is 98 percent when it’s caught early and as low as 23 percent when it’s caught late, that’s a fatal shortcoming.

But that wasn’t even the worst part.

Because even after you paid extra because you were a woman and paid extra for critical preventive care and paid out of your own pocket for maternity benefits, insurance companies were still allowed to cancel your insurance when you got sick. All they had to do was find one mistake in your paperwork.

Earlier this year for example, a reporter discovered that the country’s largest insurance company had a computer program that specifically targeted women who had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer in order to try to take away their coverage.

But under the Affordable Care Act, that’s changing. We’re giving Americans more control over their health care.

First, beginning in 2014, it will be illegal for health plans in the new marketplace to deny you coverage based on your medical condition. In the meantime, we’re working with states to set up a temporary insurance option that will be available to all Americans who have preexisting conditions and no health coverage. The days when the people who needed health insurance most were shut out of the market are coming to an end.

Second, we’re going to make it illegal to charge women more just because they’re women. It’s not right. It’s not fair. And we’re going to put a stop to it.

Third, you won’t have to spend any more time scouring the fine print because all new plans in the health insurance marketplace will have to provide a basic set of benefits including maternity care.

Fourth, we’re going to eliminate the co-pays for key preventive services like mammograms because no one should have to skip a life-saving test because they can’t pay.

And fifth, we’re ending the practice of canceling someone’s insurance when they get sick. That ban will go into effect this fall, but I’m pleased to say that many of our biggest insurance companies have agreed to stop this practice right away.

These changes will give you the rights and protections you deserve. They’re going to put power back in the hands of consumers. They’ll put you in charge of your health care, not some insurance company.

That’s going to be the ultimate legacy of this law.

Over the last year, groups like the League of Women Voters have played an invaluable role by educating Americans about these changes.

You’ve explained new provisions and answered questions. It hasn’t been easy. I don’t have to tell you that there have been a lot of people out there trying to confuse and scare Americans.

And no one’s been targeted with more misinformation than America’s seniors. That’s why we’ve been making a special effort over the last few months to get seniors accurate information about their health care.

The fact is, the Affordable Care Act strengthens Medicare by closing the prescription drug donut hole, improving the quality of care, increasing access to key preventive services and by cracking down on waste and fraud to extend the life of the trust fund.

And the more seniors learn about these benefits, the more they want to hear. This month, we’ve received as many as 30,000 calls a day about the new law at our 1-800-MEDICARE hotline compared to an average of 150 a day last month.

We’ve already begun an aggressive outreach campaign to reach these seniors from a brochure we mailed to every Medicare beneficiary to a tele-town hall the President held last week where seniors from across the country called in to ask their questions.

But groups like the League of Women Voters have an important role to play too. We need you to be a resource for seniors and all Americans who are confused or have heard conflicting information. People trust you to give them the facts with no spin. The reputation you’ve built after ninety years of hard work on behalf of American democracy means you’re one of the most effective messengers out there on public policy.

It’s not a coincidence that one of the new special interest groups created to attack health insurance reform called itself the League of American Voters.

So I want to thank you for all your hard work on behalf of the Affordable Care Act. It’s a tremendous accomplishment.

But I’m also here to tell you that our work isn’t over. You understand this. The League of Women Voters was created right before the passage of the 19th amendment. Some people might have said it was a strange time to start a group focusing on women and democracy. After all, women were already poised to get the right to vote.

But you knew that passing the amendment was just the first step. There was still hard work to be done to fulfill its promise. That’s also true for the Affordable Act.

We’re on the right track. But we’ve still got a long way to go. And we’ll need your help to get there.

Thank you