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Kathleen Sebelius Leads “Breaking Down Barriers” Panel Discussion on Health Care for LGBT Persons
Remarks at the 65th World Health Assembly
May 22, 2012

Remarks by Kathleen Sebelius
U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services
Geneva, Switzerland
May 21, 2012A woman speaking and gesturing

While all countries are unique, with different languages, cultures, and histories – as health ministers, we have the same job: to promote and protect the health of all our citizens.

Six months ago, Secretary Clinton addressed the issue of LGBT rights in her speech Dignity for All here on Human Rights Day in December 2011.

We work to ensure better health for all our people because it is the smart thing to do. The more people who are vaccinated, the better protected we all are from infectious diseases. The more adults who are healthy and productive, the stronger our economies are for everybody.

But we also seek better health for all because it is the right thing to do. When another human being is sick or in pain or goes without essential preventive services, they shouldn’t have to pass some test to be able to get the care they need.

Everyone has a basic right to health care. This is a principle that all people should share and all nations should strive for.

Achieving this goal means working to break down the barriers that prevent people from getting the care they need. Sometimes those barriers have to do with resources, when people can’t afford the treatments they need. Sometime those barriers have to do with geography, for example when people live in rural areas with little access to health care providers.

And sometimes those barriers have to do simply with who people are – and that’s what we’re here to talk about today.

Today, millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender men and women around the globe are not getting the care they need simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

This can take the form of outright discrimination, like when people are given substandard care or are turned away from a hospital or local clinic because they happen to be lesbian or gay.

Often, the barriers are more subtle, like when doctors and nurses don’t take the time to understand the health needs of their LGBT patients

In other cases, health care providers violate patient confidentiality and disclose the sexual orientation of their LGBT patients. This can put LGBT people who are not “out” in their communities, at risk of discrimination, social exclusion, physical violence, or even death. And it leads many LGBT people to risk traveling to distant care facilities in order to prevent this from happening.

Because of this, LGBT populations are often invisible and unacknowledged. But they are there, in considerable numbers, in every country in the world.

I know these barriers because they still exist in my own country. Every day, LGBT Americans endure violence and harassment, have difficulty finding appropriate medical care, and face bullying and exclusion.

That’s why, over the last three years, President Obama and this Administration have put a top priority on improving access to health care for the LGBT community.

We passed a health care law that will prevent insurers from denying coverage to people because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. We’re training doctors and nurses to better understand the special health needs of LGBT people. We established a common sense policy that ensures LGBT people can visit their families and loved ones in the hospital when they’re sick, just like the rest of us.

And for the first time, we’re collecting data on the health of America’s LGBT population. This data will shine a spotlight on health disparities and show us exactly where we need to do better. For example, we’ve learned that lesbians are less likely to get preventive services for cancer than heterosexual woman, knowledge that allows us to create educational campaigns that will help us reach these women.

We have more work to do, but these steps will make it easier for the millions of LGBT Americans to have the same access to health care as their neighbors.

This is a goal that all countries should be able to get behind. Even when we have religious or cultural differences, we should all be able to agree on the fundamental principles of making sure people can see a doctor when they are injured, get medicine when they’re sick, and have access to the basic preventive care necessary to live a healthy life.

The only way we will achieve these goals is if we work towards them at the local, national and international level. And as the primary organizations through which we collaborate on global health, the UN and WHO have a critical role to play in this effort.

In the past, we have come together to reduce health disparities for women, ethnic, racial and religious minorities, those with disabilities, and others who were denied access to the health care they need. Now, we need to take the next step and do the same for millions of our fellow LGBT countrymen and women.

Thank you.