Regardless of your political views or social priorities, your approach to any health reform proposal or debate should be anchored to a single question. Directly or indirectly, how you answer this question is central to evaluating any proposal for creating sustainable reform.
The question that is foundational to all others in the health reform debate comes down to this:
Is healthcare a right or a privilege?
For the record, while most other developed countries have constitutionally declared or legislated healthcare as a right for all citizens, America has not. This is not an editorial comment but a statement of fact.
When the framers of the Constitution and Bill of Rights were defining fundamental human rights, average life expectancy was 35 years of age. [i] The concept of “healthcare” as we know it today simply did not exist.
Healthcare as a right means that all citizens are guaranteed access to some level of care or services. While the type or level of service might change, the commitment of equal access to “something” does not.
For example, Canada decreed healthcare as a right in 1984. Their system is known for guaranteeing all citizens access to certain services but often then keep patients waiting in line to access services based on budgetary targets. The United Kingdom guarantees all citizens the right to care with a founding principle of “free at the point of service” but often have some people waiting in line for service while others buy supplemental insurance policies that allow them to “jump the que” and gain better access to services.
Regardless of how the system is organized, or how well it actually works, healthcare as a right means that there is a safety net that catches all citizens.
The debate about healthcare as a right in America began with the advent of two events in history.
The first was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. A massive shift of people going from working on farms to factories gave rise to a new set of health issues and began the debate on the role of private companies and the government in providing for the health of workers and citizens.
Around the same time medicine moved out of the shadows of quackery and into the realm of being a repeatable, scientific discipline.
Ever since, America has wrestled with whether healthcare is a right or privilege.
In the 1940’s President Roosevelt attempted to address the issue of whether healthcare is a right as part of a broader social initiative known as America’s “Second Bill of Rights.”
In 1945 President Truman proposed a national health program to include all Americans declaring in a speech to Congress “We should resolve now that the health of this Nation is a national concern; that financial barriers in the way of attaining health shall be removed; that the health of all its citizens deserves the help of all the Nation.” It was denounced by the American Medical Association and called a communist plot by a House subcommittee.[ii]
The Clinton administration made healthcare their top platform priority but failed to get a plan through Congress.
Finally, the Affordable Care Act was passed during the Obama administration (aka Obamacare) in 2010 that created vehicles for citizens to have access to health plans while mandating coverage and fines for those choosing not to participate. The Trump administration from the outset worked to disassemble the Affordable Care Act.
The brief history of Affordable Care Act noted above is a cautionary tale that shows us that until healthcare is deemed a right, the fate of lasting reform will rise and fall based on the whims and views of those who control Congress and the White House (This situation continues to play out as I write this article).
An interesting corollary to the right to healthcare is our view and laws pertaining to the “right” to education. While the U.S. Constitution does not explicitly enumerate a positive fundamental right to education, a series of court decisions and legislation provide any citizen a right to a certain level of education.
As daunting as it may seem, American voters, business and political leaders have shown that they can commit to healthcare as a right in certain circumstances.
Healthcare has been decreed as a right in certain situations and for certain people. As part of the Great Society, congress enacted legislation in 1965 to guarantee seniors the right to healthcare via the Medicare program and to assist states in the provision of health services to the indigent via Medcaid.
And, since 1986, all citizens have a right to assistance in an emergency room…Unfortunately, the law only requires that a patient be stabilized. [iii] After that you are subject to the whims of the situation.
If you believe that healthcare is a right, then any proposal for reform must call out and explicitly address this issue.
- Do you believe healthcare to be a right or a privilege?
- If you believe healthcare to be a right, the question that follows is “a right to what?” Is there a set of services to which everyone has access?
- How should any proposal for reform address these fundamental questions?
To better understand the history of this issue in the United States, see the article , Health Reform – What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been.
Learn which countries have Universal Health Access and explore how each has achieved this status (single payer, private system mandates, other models) from Wikipedia.
[ii] Dr. Howard Markel, “69 years ago, a president pitches his idea for national health care”. November 19, 2014. PBS Newshour. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/november-19-1945-harry-truman-calls-national-health-insurance-program/
[iii] Health Care for Some: Rights and Rationing in the United States since 1930. Beatrix Hoffman. University of Chicago Press. 2012