Sebelius: 'Expanding Access to Health Coverage Is a Responsibility Belonging Chiefly to National Governments'

By Susan Jones | May 21, 2013 | 8:12am EDT

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (AP File Photo)

( - Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius touted universal health coverage at a global conference in Geneva, Switzerland on Monday.

"Advancing the health of our nations is a fundamental commitment we make to all our people," Sebelius told the World Health Assembly Plenary Session. "As President Obama recently reminded us, access to health care is not some earned privilege--it is a right. And that means we must work to ensure that everyone has access to the services they need."

Sebelius told the gathering that "expanding access to health coverage is a responsibility belonging chiefly to national governments," and she said the international community has an "essential role” as a champion for universal coverage.

One barrier to universal coverage is "health disparities," Sebelius said:

"In every nation, those who live in extreme poverty, people with disabilities, and members of traditionally discriminated-against groups have all faced additional barriers to good health and the security of health coverage. Some of those barriers have been put in place by stigma and discrimination. For our goal of universal health coverage to be truly universal, we must work tirelessly to remove those social and institutional barriers--and to find new ways to reach out to those who are most vulnerable to health disparities. We need to ensure that all people, even those at the margins of our societies, have the full opportunity to access health coverage."

Sebelius told the gathering that the U.S. is now in the process of "dramatically expanding Americans' access to affordable health coverage." The new rules, she said, will prevent insurance company "abuses," such as denial of coverage. Preventive health will be a priority, and the U.S. also is committed to reducing "racial and ethnic health disparities."

On the topic of health disparities, Sebelius blamed "market failures" for making the problem worse, and she indicated that government funding is the solution:

"Due to market failures, there are insufficient incentives for private sector investment in research and development for products to address diseases that primarily affect the poor," she said. "And this often results in products that are too expensive, not ideally formulated, and often lacking in innovation entirely."

Among the "concrete steps we can all take together," Sebelius mentioned the need to "monitor research flows, assess and prioritize gaps, and coordinate financing."

Those steps "will allow us to begin to close those gaps in innovation and product development for the poor," she said.

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