The Right to Health Care: Our Next Battlefield

I bristle a little every time I hear Bernie Sanders say “Health care is a right.”

What he means is “health care should be a right.” Every human being should have access to health care. A moral and decent society does not let its citizens live in pain or ill health, suffer permanent injury or die simply because of their financial circumstances. Health care is a right in nearly every other developed nation in the world.

But it’s not a right in America.

The fact is, in the United States of America in 2018, if you’re rich or if you are fortunate enough to have a good health insurance plan, you have access to some of the very best health care in the world. But even though the Affordable Care Act remains intact (despite recent efforts to eliminate it or undermine it) there are still some 28 million Americans without coverage. And many millions more are dangerously under-insured.

There are many reasons why a person might not have insurance: they may be unemployed; they may be self-employed; they may work part time or be part of the gig economy; or their employer might offer insurance but they can’t afford the premiums. In any case, people without insurance are simply out of luck. They may have access to emergency room care, but they don’t have access to preventative care. In some areas they may be able to find a free or reduced cost clinic, but these facilities are inadequate, understaffed and over-crowded. People without insurance get no assistance paying for prescriptions. If they have a chronic health condition requiring long-care treatment or ongoing medication the costs are most likely way out of reach. They likely don’t have any dental care or vision care.

And contrary to what many Republicans (like Rep. Raúl Labrador) say, people in this country DO die because they don’t have health insurance. They actually die all the time.

But lets get back to Bernie Sanders and his claim that “health care is a right.” It may be a moral right. But even so, it’s a right without a remedy. If you disagree, try going to your doctor’s office without insurance or ability to pay and announcing “I have a right to health care.” You won’t get very far.

And if you get turned away with no treatment, what then? You can’t call the police and have the doctor arrested; there is no recourse in the courts.

The reality is, you don’t have a right to health care.

But you should.

In order for Americans to have access to medical care under all circumstances, we need laws that will ensure it. That means the government needs to step in.

But the minute you put the word “government” and “health care” in the same sentence, people start to freak out. Over the past 10 years, Republicans have managed to convince us that the government guaranteeing your right to health care is the same as the government controlling your health care decisions.

They’ve also done what they do so well, and that is to pit Americans against each other by convincing folks that the people who can’t afford insurance are lazy or that they are trying to game the system. Good hardworking folks will have to pay for people who aren’t worthy. But are there really people who aren’t worthy? Do you really think that there are people who don’t deserve to be treated if they’re sick? Are there really children who should suffer and die, just because their parents don’t have insurance?

As our insightful President said, health care is a complicated subject. There are risk pools and adverse selection and actuarial tables; premiums and deductibles; HMOs, HRAs and HSAs. Who knew it was so complicated? But before we get bogged down in the details, we need to agree on the fundamentals.

The first thing we have to ask ourselves is “what kind of a country do we want to be?” Do we want to be a country where every person has access to health care, or do we want to be a country where we let people die from preventable diseases because they are out of work, or under-employed, or self-employed.

Only when we can agree on what kind of country we want to be can we begin to make progress.

There are a lot of different ways for the government to ensure that each and every American can get access to medical treatment, but regardless of which form it takes, it’s necessary for us to have laws that will make it happen.

In order for that to happen, the American people need to let our lawmakers know that universal access to health care is something we believe in. We need to vote for candidates who promise to enact laws that will guarantee it. We need to hold our representatives accountable until they pass legislation to ensure it.

Right now, we’re a long way from that.

Just like other rights that have been won by Americans and other people across the globe and throughout history, the right to health care will be hard-won and will probably take a long time. Just like women gaining the right to vote, and Civil Rights for people of color, and the right to marry the person you love, Americans will have to demand and fight for the right to access medical care. We may have to take to the streets, but certainly we will have to make a long and sustained effort. Meaningful change doesn’t just happen because one man says “it’s a right.”

So if you think that every American is entitled to receive medical care, the next time you hear someone say “health care is a right” you need to say “No it isn’t.”

Not yet.

But it should be.


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