National Partnership for Women & Families

Remarks of Debra Ness, National Partnership for Women and Families, at 2009 Annual Luncheon

Washington, D.C. — June 15, 2009 —
Thank you.  It’s wonderful to see all of you — those of you who are back again this year, and those who are first-timers.  Thank you especially for your commitment to bringing fairness and justice to America’s women and families.

As I look out, I am reminded that there were years we gathered for this annual luncheon when Washington was tilted against our mothers, daughters, and sisters.  Years when equal opportunity was imperiled.  Years when we had to fight just to hold the line on victories from the past. 

Today, as we gather again, I’ll dispense with trying to be eloquent and just put it simply: What a difference a year makes!

What a difference from a year ago when Lilly Ledbetter represented a system stacked against equal opportunity, to this year when the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first piece of legislation our President signed into law.  For those of us who were there, it was a moving moment.  I watched as even a political veteran, Senator Barbara Mikulski, teared up as history was made.

What a statement it will make when the same Supreme Court that told Lilly Ledbetter she couldn’t seek justice for pay discrimination in our courts adds Sonia Sotomayor as its newest member.

Last November, Americans showed they were ready for change, ready to heed a call to come together and rethink who we are as a people and as a nation.

This is a moment when we can make real, lasting change, if we help Americans who are trying to care for their families and do their jobs.  Not one of us is unaffected by these dual demands and for many, there are no good choices.  For the millions of Americans who face financial disaster if they miss just one day of pay, there is a daily “stress test” for which there is no bailout. 

It affects all of us.  When swine flu first hit, we got a sobering glimpse of just how critical a basic workplace policy like paid sick days can be.  We got advice from the President on down to stay home from work if we felt ill.  We were told to keep our kids home from school if they were sick. 

But that good advice collided with the reality that nearly half of private sector workers don’t have a single paid sick day.  Just barely making ends meet, they can’t afford to miss a payday. What’s responsible when your kid is sick but you might lose your job if you keep her home? 

These are the Americans who serve our food, who make up our hotel rooms, who work in nursing homes and daycare centers, who clean our offices long after we’ve gone home.  They deserve better.  All Americans deserve better.  So let’s make this the year that we pass the Healthy Families Act and make a basic guarantee of paid sick days the law of the land.

Let’s help our states provide paid family and medical leave.  Let’s make the federal government a model employer.  And after 16 years of success, let’s expand the Family and Medical Leave Act so it covers the millions of workers who don’t yet have its protections. 

There’s a constant, gnawing stress for millions in meeting the daily demands of work and family.  But when that stress is combined with a chronic illness in the family, families get stretched to the breaking point. 

We are facing an impending crisis.  Baby Boomers are aging.  The good news is that we are all living longer.  The bad news is that we also are living sicker with more complex health problems and more crushing caregiving challenges.  

These demands will not just crush our families.  They will also break the back of our health care system.  It’s already started.  80 percent of health care costs are driven by the 20 percent of our population with chronic conditions.  And the number of people who need chronic care is sky-rocketing.

These are the people increasingly older and often poorer who make the heaviest use of the system, at the highest cost, but often with the worst results.  Research shows that they are getting the right care for their condition only about half the time.

Consider this: Older Americans with multiple chronic conditions average 37 visits to 14 different doctors and get 50 separate prescriptions in the course of a year.  Their doctors don’t talk to each other, no one coordinates their care, and rarely does anyone have the right information in one place to make the best decisions. 

Is it any surprise that these patients get duplicate tests and procedures, or have complications from drug interactions and high rates of preventable medical errors?  That they end up hospitalized for things that could have been treated at home?  That, when they are discharged from hospitals, without good information or follow up, one in five ends up readmitted within 30 days?

We all know that our health care system needs transformational change.  We get it when the President says: ‘Yes, we have to cover everyone, but we can’t just load people into a broken system a system riddled with disparities, inefficiency and uncontrollable costs.’ 

It doesn’t do us much good to have the best health care in the world if even those who are covered only get the right care about half the time.

Right now, we have the best chance in decades to reform our health care system.  We need affordable, quality coverage for all and we can only get it if we change the system to pay for and deliver the right things.  We can afford it, if we provide care that is better coordinated, care that is focused on prevention, care that includes the full range of reproductive health services women need, care that eliminates disparities.  We can afford it if we give every American the right care, at the right time, for the right reason, at the right price.

Getting it right and getting it right, right now is essential to our nation's health and well-being, its ability to function and prosper.  It’s essential to workers and families.  And it’s essential to businesses. 

Consider that over the next five years, 50 percent of the workforce will have caregiving responsibilities.  This is a wake-up call and a key challenge for the 21st century.  We need 21st century workplace policies and a 21st century health care system.  They would make a difference for people like Susan Crowson.  When Susan found herself caring for her father, she felt completely overwhelmed.  She’s here to share her story.  Please welcome Susan…

… Thank you so much, Susan, for sharing your personal struggle and reminding us what’s really at stake with health care reform. 

The winds of change that swept into Washington this year brought with them not just a new President, but a whole new Administration with new priorities and new initiatives. 

Soon after this Administration took office, President Obama announced the creation of a special White House Council on Women and Girls to ensure that every Cabinet department consider how its policies affect women and families.  To chair this council, the President didn’t pick just anyone. He picked Valerie Jarrett.

Think of what it will mean that we have Valerie Jarrett leading this effort.  Because what you may not know is that for Valerie Jarrett, the challenges of millions of Americans in meeting the dual demands of work and family aren’t abstract policy issues.  They are the story of her life.

When her daughter was seven months old, Valerie Jarrett became a single parent.  Today, that daughter is a graduate of Amherst College and is attending Harvard Law School. 

Every day, when Valerie Jarrett shows up at work in the White House, she shows up as mother, as a daughter, as a patriot who knows that America must do right by its families.  She shows up as a leader who embodies the very reason we do our work and who stands by our side in this struggle.

Over the years, Valerie Jarrett has rocketed to the top of careers in both the public and private sectors.  And, as you know, she now serves as Senior Advisor to the President.  But it is not simply her West Wing office that gives her the influence and power to make a positive difference, it is confidence and respect that she has earned in nearly two decades as both a friend and colleague of Barack and Michelle Obama.

Valerie Jarrett has been called the president’s “rock.”  It is upon that rock that rests so much of the promise of progress for women and families in America. 

Think of what it will mean in the months and years to come to have an Administration that stands by our side, and not in our way.  An Administration that recognizes the challenges that women face.  An Administration that puts our concerns on the front of its agenda and not in deep freeze.

We look forward to working with the Administration on economic security for working families; reshaping our workplaces for the 21st Century; and transforming our health care system.  We look to the Obama Administration for action and so we look to Valerie Jarrett.  Ladies and Gentlemen, Valerie Jarrett…

The National Partnership for Women & Families is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group dedicated to promoting fairness in the workplace, access to quality health care and policies that help women and men meet the dual demands of work and family. More information is available at

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