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Black, Civil Rights Groups Applaud Health Care Signing

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By Pharoh Martin, NNPA National Correspondent –

(NNPA) - It's been a contentious year, but now that supporters of health care reform finally got their day, Black political and civil rights leaders, as well as other health care reform advocates are applauding the bill’s passage for a diversity of reasons.

Civil rights leaders have been some of the most vocal backers of the bill because African-Americans are among the most disparately impacted by lack of insurance, chronic diseases and other health-related setbacks.

"Like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Civil Rights laws in the past, today's vote will forever be a threshold moment for the nation,” said Marc Morial, president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League on the day of the presidential signing March 23. "Generations to come will look back to this day as one where the American dream was more fully realized."

In the days leading up to the final House vote, congressional members were verbally attacked by opponents of the bill. Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D- Ga.) was one of the individuals at the receiving end of a protester's racial slur. Of course, Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights struggle, still voted in favor of the bill.

“The last 24 hours have witnessed a chaos and disorder that reared its ugly head in nasty language and hostile attacks,” Morial said in a statement. “Despite attacks upon civil rights icons in the Congress, justice and truth continue to "march on.""

Some key provisions pushed by Black leaders and the Congressional Black Caucus such as the public option failed to make the final bill but other measures were included to bring additional medical insurance-related protections for people, bring down costs and lower the number of uninsured Americans.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that more than 15 percent of all Americans are uninsured. According to a February Gallop poll, about one out of five African-Americans are without medical coverage.

The new law guarantees coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions, closes the prescription drug “donut hole” for seniors and extends coverage to an estimated 32 million more previously uninsured people through the use of federal subsidies, the extension of Medicaid and the establishment of a state-based health insurance exchange program that competitively pools different coverage plans in order to drive down premium costs. The Congressional Budget Office reports that the national deficit will be reduced by over $1.2 trillion over the next 20 years because of the new measures.

“Under the current proposal, if people like the insurance plan they have, they can keep it,” stated Hilary Shelton, NAACP Senior Vice President for Advocacy and Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau. “If they like their doctor, nothing in the new proposal takes that choice away.”

He adds, “What does change under the new plan is an increase in protections provided to Americans. Specifically, the new proposal outlaws discrimination against Americans with pre-existing medical conditions and does not allow insurance companies to deny coverage to a person because he or she has gotten sick. It reduces costs for people who currently have insurance and makes coverage more affordable for people without it. It also sets up a new competitive insurance market where small business owners and families are allowed to shop for the insurance plan that works best for them.”

Health care reform measures such as protections for people with pre-existing conditions are key because, if statistics were to tell the story, Black people are the sickest but the least likely to get helped. Just under half of all African-Americans suffer from some kind of chronic disease and the Black community continues to bear the brunt of the AIDS epidemic.

Of the 1.1 million people in the US infected with HIV just under half are African-American, according to statistics reported by the Center for Disease Control. For context, Blacks make up only 12 percent of the US population, citing 2000 Census figures.

And while the health reform bill is a step in the right direction in helping African-Americans living with HIV and AIDS there are miles to go before anybody can sleep, says Phill Wilson, President and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute.

“It might well be what change looks like but It is not yet meaningful enough reform," he wrote in a statement.

In addition to the provisions that expands coverage, closes the “donut hole” for prescription drugs and makes discrimination against people living with pre-existing conditions illegal two other measures critically important to people with chronic diseases, according to Wilson, include:

* The “individual mandate”- The bill includes an "individual mandate" provision that requires that all Americans retain health insurance is expected to drive down insurance premiums and it obligates the federal government to subsidize those unable to afford coverage.

* Prohibitions on life-time caps- The new law prohibits insurance companies from placing limits on how much coverage a plan will cover in an insured person's lifetime, which is especially important for people with long-term chronic conditions.

Wilson said, “Historically, people with AIDS have experienced major barriers to obtaining health insurance and keeping it, especially when purchasing insurance as an individual. Given the potential enormous cost of life-saving HIV treatments over one's lifetime, "guaranteed availability and renewability of coverage" is a key victory for people with AIDS.

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