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66th World Health Assembly – Plenary Session
May 20, 2013

U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius addresses the 66th World Health Assembly

Geneva, Switzerland
May 20, 2013

Good afternoon. I’m honored to be here with so many distinguished health leaders from around the world. And I’m pleased to speak today on behalf of the Americas region.I want to begin by thanking Dr. Chan and the staff of WHO both here and around the world for all the incredible work you do every day.

And I’d like to recognize Dr. Carissa Etienne, whom we recently welcomed as the new Director of the Pan-American Health Organization. She is an inspiring leader who is already bringing energy, bright ideas, and a wealth of expertise to her new role. And we look forward to all that she will help us accomplish in the years ahead.

This year’s World Health Assembly theme of ensuring health’s place in the next generation of global development goals is one that we in the Americas welcome. As a region made strong by our diversity, we approach this subject with a wide array of perspectives and priorities. But we share a common desire to work with the world community to improve the health of all people. And we share a common desire to sprint to the finish when it comes to achieving development goals already in place.

Working together as a region to turn those common desires into effective solutions is more critical than ever. That’s because a growing number of the most difficult health challenges we face are not confined within national borders.

We’ve worked hard to foster a strong cooperative spirit when it comes to meeting those challenges.

The Americas region has taken on a leadership role in addressing the rising threat of noncommunicable diseases. We’ve established international guidelines for reporting and responding to outbreaks of infectious disease. We are working together to combat falsified medicines and promote access to medication across the region through regulatory convergence. And we’ve joined together to eliminate transmission of polio, and rid our region of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and rubella.

As we look to the future, we will continue to seek out solutions together when it comes to these and other challenges, including building more resilient health systems and addressing the needs of our ageing population. And we look forward to our continued work together in pursuit of the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals.

Most importantly, we will continue to seek out a common vision, and define a set of global priorities so that we are prepared to effectively contribute to the debates that will drive the future of global health.

One goal that is particularly essential to health and development—and something that is a shared priority in the Americas and around the world—is universal health coverage. Advancing the health of our nations is a fundamental commitment we make to all our people. 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.

While expanding access to health coverage is a responsibility belonging chiefly to national governments, it is imperative that the international community fulfill its essential role as champions for universal coverage. That means continuing to set aggressive targets, and supporting member states in their efforts to put quality care and preventive services within the reach of all people.

Through PAHO and WHO, the Americas region has worked hard to address the challenges that stand in the way of universal health coverage. To that end, we have forged evolving partnerships between public and private stakeholders at the local, national, regional, and global levels. We’ve come together to promote equitable access to essential health services, as well as financial risk protections. And we are committed to reducing health disparities and tackling the social, economic, and environmental determinants of health.

That commitment is one we make to every single one of our citizens—including those who for too long have been confined to the far edges of our respective health care systems.

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.

That work stands at the heart of the domestic efforts the United States has taken up over the last four years. Expanding access to health coverage has been a cornerstone goal of President Obama’s vision for strengthening opportunity for everyone, regardless of their station in life—and that goal is now poised to become a reality.

In the U.S., we are now in the process of dramatically expanding Americans’ access to affordable health coverage.

New rules have been put in place to prevent the worst insurance company abuses that for decades contributed to many people being denied care. We’ve enacted reforms that are changing our health care system to prioritize preventive health, and slow down the growth of health care spending to its lowest rate in fifty years. And last December, the U.S. was also proud to cosponsor the Universal Health Coverage Resolution that was adopted at the UN General Assembly.

In keeping with the spirit of WHO’s Constitution—which recognizes that all people everywhere have “the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health”—we’ve also committed to our own domestic action plan for reducing racial and ethnic health disparities.

But we know that health disparities are often exacerbated by forces that go beyond access to care. For example, 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. And this often results in products that are too expensive, not ideally formulated, and often lacking in innovation entirely.

We recognize that the resolution and recommendations agreed upon last November, represent concrete steps we can all take together right now to monitor research flows, assess and prioritize gaps, and coordinate financing. As you know, those are now before the Assembly in follow-up to the CEWG Report. These steps will allow us to begin to close those gaps in innovation and product development for the poor. And we are committed to a universal approach that involves WHO.

In the U.S. and across the Americas region, we’ve made great progress—not only on universal health coverage, but on so many of the other development goals and health challenges and we face. And while we can be proud of that progress, we also recognize that there is so much more to do in our respective countries, as a region, and as members of an international community committed to improving health everywhere.

As reform of WHO moves forward, we will keep collaborating to overcome our common struggles. We will keep striving to bring greater transparency and accountability to the work we do together. We will keep working to ensure that WHO grows into the institution we need it to be—a vibrant, focused institution, fully prepared to meet the challenges that this century will bring.

We in the Americas are committed to that vision. And we look forward to our continued work together as partners with the WHO in achieving our common goals.

Thank you.