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Do you think health care is a right for all people?

Do you think health care is a right for all people?

Do you think health care is a right for all people?
QUESTION
Do you think health care is a right for all people?
Do you think health care is a right for all people?

ANSWER
We are entitled to certain rights simply by virtue of our humanity. Human rights exist regardless of culture, religion, race, nationality, or socioeconomic status. Only by exercising our rights freely can we live a dignified life. Health care may be the most intersecting and critical of all the rights to which we are entitled. Because of the frailty of our human lives, we must protect this right as a public good. Universal health care is critical to enabling the most marginalized segments of any population to live dignified lives. We literally cannot live, let alone live with dignity, without our health.

We do not have the right to health care in the United States. Our country has a system that is designed to deny rather than support the right to health. The United States has only a health insurance system, not a health care system. Our government is a global champion of human rights, insisting that other countries protect human rights and even imposing sanctions for failure to do so. Our government is not as aggressive in protecting human rights at home.

Internationally, the right to health care has long been recognized. Surprisingly, the origins of this right can be found in the United States. Franklin Delano Roosevelt included health care in his Second Bill of Rights (FDR). Unfortunately, FDR’s death prevented the Second Bill of Rights from being implemented. Eleanor Roosevelt, on the other hand, took his work to the United Nations (UN) and had it expanded and clarified. She was appointed as the drafting chairperson for the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). That committee codified our human rights, including the fundamental right to health (Article 25). These international standards were adopted by the United States and all other UN member countries.

Since the adoption of the UDHR, every other industrialized country in the world has implemented universal health care systems, as have many non-industrialized countries. Such systems ensure that everyone within their borders has access to health care. Years after the UDHR was passed, the UN proposed another treaty that included health care: the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR). Article 12 of the CESCR further clarified “everyone’s right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” In this context, “health” refers not only to the right to be healthy and receive health care, but also to the right to control one’s own body, including reproduction.

According to Article 12, “states must protect this right by ensuring that everyone within their jurisdiction has access to the underlying determinants of health, such as clean water, sanitation, food, nutrition, and housing, and through a comprehensive system of health care that is available to everyone without discrimination and economically accessible to all.” All UN member countries signed this treaty. All countries except three ratified it: Palau, the Comoros, and the United States of America. All CESCR signatory countries are subject to a periodic review of progress on the human rights protected. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also monitors progress on the UDHR-protected rights. In preparation for these reviews, the US government submits a report highlighting its human rights achievements.

Surprisingly, or perhaps realistically, the United States’ 2015 report to the UN fails to even mention health as a human right. Instead, it refers to health “measures,” avoiding the use of the word “right” in relation to health. (US government UPR report, section H, paragraphs 100 and 101.) A reading of that report raises eyebrows among health advocates; “health measures” are nothing resembling “health rights.” It was, however, the only appropriate term to use. The only progress reported by the United States was the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which is a health insurance law rather than a health care law. The US could not admit to the UN that it had made no progress on such a fundamental and basic right as health.

What the government did not want to say is that, far from ensuring the right to health, the government continues to violate the UDHR by operating a system that discriminates against minority groups and/or all people living in poverty. As a result, health care becomes a “non-system.” The UDHR makes no distinction between health and ability to pay, citizenship, or any other factor. The United States of America does. Our government has actually harmed, rather than improved, our right to health care by codifying a system that allows huge corporate profits on health care as a commodity. So, perhaps, and refreshingly, the US was simply being truthful with the UN about its failure to ensure and protect the human right to health care.

This failure to safeguard the right to health is perplexing. Our country’s leaders have attempted to ensure our right to health, from FDR’s drafting of the Second Bill of Rights to Dwight Eisenhower’s success in passing Medicare. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized the importance and intersectionality of that right during the Poor People’s Campaign in the 1960s. “Of all forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane,” he said. On March 25, 1966, a press conference was held in Chicago in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Medical Committee for Human Rights.

It is also perplexing that our government has lauded, and continues to laud, the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as a means of ensuring the right to health care. It is true that our country’s health statistics have improved since the ACA’s implementation. Many people are now able to see a medical professional as a result of the ACA, thanks to Medicaid expansion. Prior to the ACA, the death rate for lack of health care was atrocious: three people died in our country every 30 minutes for lack of health care. That death rate has decreased since the ACA, but it remains. No matter how you spin it, health insurance is not the same as health care.

That contrast is most evident in personal stories of suffering. People were shocked when the ACA codified cost barriers; they had been convinced that this law was a reform that would actually increase access to health care. I spoke with Susan in Vermont while gathering stories. “I simply don’t understand what happened,” she says, 27 years old. I was told that the ACA would allow me to obtain the health care I require. Every month, I pay my premium. Now that I’m seriously ill, I can’t work and have very little money. It turns out that I can’t see my doctor without paying because I haven’t spent $2,000 out of my own pocket this year—even after paying all of my premiums. So, even after paying thousands of dollars in premiums and the $2,000 deductible, I still have to bring money with me for a co-pay.”

Do you think health care is a right for all people?

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