Far more is at risk in the health care reform debates than the well-being of the 47 million Americans who are currently uninsured, according to Jeff Crowley, the White House director of the Office of National AIDS Policy and senior adviser on Disability Policy, who spoke to an engaged crowd of about 60 students and others at HLS Wednesday night.

“Our country’s economic future is at stake,” said Crowley, who appeared in an event jointly sponsored by the Health Law and Policy Clinic of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics.

Crowley noted that “[President Obama] came into office with an unprecedented number of challenges, with the economic crisis a big one. He would argue that we can’t get our economy back on track unless we take on this issue. He sees it as fundamental to getting the economy going in the right direction.” Crowley emphasized that the President’s health care plan will not “add a penny” to the federal deficit because it will be a funded initiative.

That connection to the nation’s economic health is one reason that President Obama has placed comprehensive health insurance reform at the top of his agenda, said Crowley, adding that the President “sees it as one of the most important things he could do to improve the future of this country.” It’s also a reason there is consensus, at least among Democrats, that health care reform must succeed, and that there is growing bipartisan support for reform including from prominent Republicans such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and former U.S. Senator Robert Dole. Crowley added, “While the legislation we end up with may not be perfect, this is going to be 10 steps forward. Once we pass health reform, we’ll still have a lot of work to do, but it will be worth it.”

In his introduction of Crowley, Robert Greenwald, acting managing attorney of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center (where he is also director of the Health Law and Policy Clinic), noted that Crowley is one of the nation’s leading experts on health care policy and has “worked tirelessly” for years to improve access to health care and social services for the poor, people with disabilities, and people living with HIV and AIDS. President Obama appointed Crowley in February as a senior policy adviser for disability issues, Greenwald noted, and also as the administration’s policy chief on HIV/AIDS, where he is charged with developing a national AIDS strategy coordinating all federal agencies. Although the AIDS epidemic is 30 years old, Greenwald said, this marks the first effort to create a national AIDS strategy.

“The importance cannot be overstated, given that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate there are 56,000 new cases of people infected with HIV each year in the U.S., a number that’s remained unchanged from 2001 to 2007,” said Greenwald, a senior clinical instructor at the Legal Services Center and a lecturer on law who this semester is teaching a clinical workshop, Health, Disability and Estate Planning: Law and Policy.

While the Obama administration is placing enormous emphasis on health care reform, Crowley said, it also is strongly committed to the related issue of improving the wellbeing of persons with HIV/AIDS and those with disabilities. That includes making insurance affordable for everyone and expanding Medicaid, which – unlike private insurance – was created to assist low-income people who are ill. Crowley said there is bipartisan support for expansion of the Medicaid program because it is generally effective at providing health care for the poor, especially those with chronic illnesses and disabilities. “It’s not this ideological view that we want government doing it,” Crowley said of Medicaid. “But the reality is, Medicaid is a cost-effective program well-designed to meet the long-term care and treatment needs of individuals living with chronic medical conditions and disabilities.”

The President’s commitment to people with disabilities includes improving access to community-based services so people aren’t limited to living in institutions, said Crowley. In addition, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department is now making it a priority to protect the civil rights of the disabled by enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal laws.

The issue of HIV/AIDS is of great importance to the President, who is spotlighting the domestic epidemic of the disease, said Crowley. Public perception is that the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. has dissipated, when, in fact, it is one of the leading causes of death among African Americans and among gay and bisexual men, he noted. Obama’s three goals are to reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS, ensure that everyone with HIV/AIDS has access to health care, and address HIV-related health care disparities. To that end, Crowley has convened a federal interagency work group to help him develop policy.

“We need to engage the American people more broadly” on the issue, said Crowley, who is traveling the country to solicit ideas from community groups and individuals. He also asked that people – whether living with HIV/AIDS or not – join the effort by sending suggestions to a website, http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/onap/.