A visit to P.S. 197 in my district last week reminded me of just how important it is that we protect the groundbreaking health care reform law. I witnessed the incredible work of Dr. Olajide Williams, a neurologist who teaches local students about wellness, physical activity and nutrition using hip-hop music, dance and cartoons.

Harlem bears a disproportionate burden in stroke deaths, so Dr. Williams founded Hip Hop Public Health in effort to address killer conditions such as obesity, stroke, smoking, hypertension, poor nutrition and lack of exercise at an early age.

Seeing so many children learn to take charge of their wellness is gratifying. Under the Affordable Care Act, no child will be denied coverage due to a preexisting condition, and all will be able to stay in their parent’s insurance plan up until the age of 26.

Most importantly, these kids and their families will have access to important preventive services, such as recommended health screenings, vaccinations and counseling, including blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol tests to help them avoid illness in the first place, at no additional cost.

Each year, close to 800,000 Americans suffer strokes. Strokes are the leading neurological cause of long-term disability and the third-leading cause of death. Over 140,000 people die each year; the death rates are twice as higher for Blacks than for whites, even at younger ages. Although stroke can happen to anyone and at any age, studies show that up to 80 percent of strokes can be prevented by working with a health care professional to reduce personal risk. Americans paid about $73.7 billion in 2010 for stroke-related medical costs and disability.

We can save money and lives by giving certain people access to preventive care. Fewer kids would end up with chronic or serious illnesses in their adult lives if they had affordable health care. The most expensive treatments are needed by people who lack routine checkups and neglect early symptoms. Keeping people out of intensive care units and hospitals is essential to reducing America’s ballooning deficit.

Republicans are currently calling for big changes to tackle our nation’s fiscal problems and the debt, which they claim “really is a health care problem.” Earlier this year, they have supported a “repeal and replace” bill that would reinstitute the unfair practices in the health care insurance industry that my Democratic colleagues and I fought so hard to end. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the GOP plan would ultimately increase the deficit by $230 billion by 2021.

In contrast, the CBO estimates that health care reform will reduce our deficit by $210 billion over the next 10 years and more than $1 billion over the next 20. Since last year’s enactment, already 1.4 million new private sector jobs have been created, with 243,000 in the health care industry alone. More than 4 million small businesses have been provided with $40 billion available in tax credits to help them afford employee health insurance coverage.

Lost in the false Republican rhetoric of “death panels” and “socialism” is the truth of just how our reform bill put people in charge of their own health care, not the insurance companies. Thirty-two million people nationwide no longer have to rely on the emergency room as their primary care provider. As many as 129 million Americans will no longer lose coverage due to a preexisting condition. Thirty million women will gain health care benefits, including reproductive care and colonoscopies. The 3.5 million seniors who entered the Medicare Part D “donut hole” coverage gap in 2010, on average, will save more than $500 in 2011 on their drug costs.

Throughout America, children and families were denied access to important health care that not only escalated our fiscal crisis, but bankrupted the lives of so many people in America. Just as we must preserve Social Security and other entitlements, we cannot let our progress roll back. To create jobs, reduce our deficit and ensure the health of our great nation, protecting and strengthening the Affordable Care Act must be our priority both now and in the future.

One year ago, my Democratic colleagues fought tirelessly against GOP opposition to pass President Obama’s historic legislation and won. We will win again. This is a moral question. Health care is not a privilege; it’s a right. I believe in America to ultimately see and do what is right.

Charles Rangel, the 21st-term congressman serving the people of Northern Manhattan, played a leading role in the passage of the healthcare reform act as the former chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.