As the world’s health ministers gather this week in Geneva to talk about pressing global health challenges, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius can’t help but talk about health reform.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. The secretary, promoter-in-chief of the Affordable Care Act, is frequently on the stump for the health reform law in speeches and meetings across the U.S. But on the international stage, the impact, gravity and inspirational nature of the measure take on a new meaning for leaders seeking to reverse sometimes dismal health statistics.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at 2012 World Health Assembly

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius addresses the World Medical Association during the 2012 World Health Assembly in Geneva. Photo by Georges Benjamin

In her address Monday to the delegates of the 65th World Health Assembly, which has a theme of universal health coverage, Sebelius noted the many different and unique challenges each of the represented nations faces.

“But one challenge we all face is how to keep our nations healthy and how to make sure all our people can access the care they need when they get sick,” she said.

She lifted up the two-year-old U.S. health reform law, our “most significant step towards universal health coverage in nearly 50 years,” as a notable achievement and historic sign of progress, even for the wealthiest nation on earth.

“But we know that to improve health we have to do more than expand coverage,” she continued. “Health is affected by the food we eat, the air or smoke we breathe, and the communities where we live.” She pointed to the National Prevention Strategy, made possible by the Affordable Care Act, and HHS’ “health in all policies” approach as critical to achieving our nation’s health goals.

Her words may have been overlooked at home, but had a particular effect on an audience of health ministers charged with protecting the health of their citizens under often trying circumstances.

“The secretary has given an eloquent and fact-filled explanation of the Affordable Care Act and the benefits, especially to women, children and most vulnerable,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of APHA and a member of the U.S. delegation to the World Health Assembly. “It is clear from my experience interacting with the world’s leaders here that the ACA is viewed as a major and creditable health policy accomplishment.”

In remarks before the World Medical Association, Sebelius talked about the importance of maternal and child health, one of the global health priorities outlined in the Millennium Development Goals that some consider among the greatest health challenges.

“Every two minutes [worldwide], a woman dies from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth. The risks are even greater if you live in the developing world — where three out of every four women needing care for complications from pregnancy do not receive it,” she said.

She noted that even in the U.S., gaps in coverage for women’s health services and other issues related to gender equity in health present challenges for women.

The Affordable Care Act, she said, is “the most important and comprehensive American law affecting women’s health in decades.”

And addressing a panel on health issues affecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community she said, ”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.”

The impact of health reform and the need for universal health coverage was felt around the world this week.

“Many challenges discussed here reflect challenges faced in both developed and developing countries,” said APHA’s Benjamin. “While the Affordable Care Act is uniquely American, it offers promise to other nations. Secretary Sebelius and the ACA have helped make a compelling case for action on health.”