* Sebelius casts health law as weapon against race disparity
* Warns "enemy" would dismantle policies dating to mid-1960s
* Supreme Court to rule in June in states' suit against law
* Says Medicare, Medicaid for the old & poor also in danger
By David Morgan
WASHINGTON, April 12 A top U.S. administration
official asked civil rights activists on Thursday to help defend
President Barack Obama's embattled healthcare law, saying the
reform package faces an "enemy" determined to set American
health policy back half a century.
The remarks in a charged election year come two months
before the Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling that
could make or break the law.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius sought
to cast the two-year-old reform law as a vital weapon against
racial disparities that have long condemned U.S. minorities to
higher infant mortality rates, shorter lifespans and limited
access to medical services.
"The enemy is at the door and we know that they would like to
dismantle these initiatives," Sebelius told the annual
convention of the National Action Network, a civil rights group
led by the Rev. Al Sharpton.
"Healthcare inequalities have been one of the most
persistent forms of injustice," she said. "Now is not the time
to turn back."
Sebelius' remarks were part of an administration campaign to
promote the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act during a
turbulent election year marked by repeated calls for its repeal
and a Supreme Court ruling expected in June that could declare
all or part of the law unconstitutional.
Civil rights activists and the minority communities they
represent are a key segment of Obama's Democratic base, whose
support he could need in great numbers to stave off a Republican
challenge in November, especially if the high court strikes down
his signature domestic policy achievement.
Research has long shown low-income Americans, including many
minorities, have significantly less access to medical care and
suffer disproportionate rates of childhood illnesses,
hypertension, heart disease, AIDS and other diseases.
HEALTHCARE FOR 30 MILLION UNINSURED
Designed to extend health coverage to more than 30 million
uninsured Americans, Obama's healthcare reform law has become a
favorite target for Republicans mainly because of an unpopular
provision that requires most Americans to have private health
insurance by 2014.
"We've got folks who are committed to undoing ... the
important initiatives that we've made in the last few years,"
Sebelius told her predominantly black audience without making a
direct reference to Republicans or other opponents of reform.
"Frankly, they want to go back and undo Medicare and
Medicaid from the mid-1960s. They want to roll us back years and
years," she added.
Medicare and Medicaid, the national healthcare programs for
the elderly and poor, respectively, were created in 1965 in a
period of social and civil rights reforms aimed at ending racial
segregation and protecting the voting rights of minorities.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s led to monumental
changes in American race relations that allowed Obama to be
elected as the first black U.S. president in 2008.
The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives
voted last month to partially privatize Medicare and convert
Medicaid to a block-grant program for states.
Sebelius called on religious leaders, health advocates and
other minority leaders to help the administration educate the
public about the healthcare law's benefits.
The law, which does not come into full force until January
1, 2014, has already benefited minorities by extending private
insurance coverage to young adults, providing free preventive
services for those with insurance and banning coverage denials
for children with pre-existing conditions.
"I'm here to ask you to help," Sebelius said. "If we can
begin to close the disparities in health, we begin to close
disparities in other areas, too."