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How Can We Call Healthcare a Right?

Long-time HCFA-WA supporter and recently retired RN Cris Currie, who spent the last 13 years of his career in home health serving mostly Medicare and Medicaid patients, explains a common refrain: healthcare is a right.

When single payer activists refer to healthcare as a human right, we are not equating it with our legally enforceable rights that are enshrined in our constitution’s Bill of Rights. Americans, being more accustomed to procedural rights than physical rights, have never considered basic human needs such as food, shelter, and clothing as part of its list of rights as many other countries do. Even though the U.S. signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25 of which includes medical care and social services as rights, and the WHO constitution which states that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being,” we should not expect that our government will ever adopt the same language.

However, the preamble of the U.S. constitution lays out the legitimate goals of the government as including promotion of the general welfare and ensuring domestic tranquility. Then, of course, there is the Declaration of Independence which declares life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as inalienable rights. The Declaration goes on to say that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Modern health care could certainly be included under general welfare and the resulting domestic tranquility, but what is specifically the role of our government in protecting the rights of life and the pursuit of happiness? I believe that what these documents are saying is that properly functioning governments should do their best to ensure that everyone has reasonably available and affordable access to quality goods and services that make life possible and potentially fulfilling. In modern times, that would certainly include healthcare.

Since the poor, the disabled, and the sick have never been profitable for business, theirs has largely been the domain of private charity. But when charity proves insufficient, the government has a responsibility to step in and ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met. So referring to healthcare as a human right is more of a shorthand way of saying: Ensuring affordable access to quality healthcare is part of the government’s responsibility. Apparently, over 90% of Americans still believe this to be true, despite conservative rhetoric to the contrary.

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