COLUMBIA -- U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said Friday that the new health care law is the Civil Rights Act of the 21st century because it ends discrimination of individuals with chronic and catastrophic illnesses.

The S.C. Democrat made the comparison before about 400 people attending the University of South Carolina's third annual series on health care disparities, a lecture that bears Clyburn's name.

As with the Civil Rights Act, which gave black Americans equal rights, Clyburn said Congress will need to revisit the health care law and make changes over the years. The law will become fully effective in 2014, when 32 million more Americans, including about 500,000 South Carolinians, receive health insurance.

Some changes will kick in by the end of this year, such as allowing adult children up to age 26 to remain on their parents' health plans and the creation of insurance pools for adults with pre-existing conditions.

"What we're trying to do is pull this together in such a way that we can lay a foundation," Clyburn said. "We're going to be visiting this for a long time."

Clyburn said that equal rights began with a foundation in 1957, accompanied by the record-setting filibuster by the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Then came key votes in 1964, 1965, 1968 and 1972 that ended segregated schools, ensured voting rights, promised fair housing and outlawed discrimination in the public sector.

Tom Chandler, dean of the university's Arnold School of Public Health, said that growing up in the South during the civil rights movement is one reason he wanted to work in public health. Chandler said he also sees the health care law as a modern-day civil rights issue decades in the making.

"I agree with you, sir, wholeheartedly, that this is exactly what this legislation is and will mean for our children, for the poor, for the disenfranchised, the mentally ill and for those among us with chronic diseases who can't afford or can't obtain adequate health insurance coverage," he said.

Although many critics say the law is too expensive and a big government power grab, Chandler said, it will help ease socioeconomic and racial health disparities among South Carolinians.

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855.