Get It Right: Healthcare As Human Right

 In Healthcare Rights

Last week Senators Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz squared off in a CNN Debate on healthcare. One of the points Sen. Sanders hammered on was that healthcare is a human right – on which, obviously, we totally agree.

But Sen. Sanders didn’t unpack the idea at all, and a lot of the reactions boil down to ‘is not!’ vs. ‘is so!’ As a service to patient activists, advocates, and allies, we thought we could put meat on those bones, and explain why a right to healthcare makes sense.

The key idea here is that whether something is a human right depends more on our ideas about government, than our ideas about humans. When we say  ‘X is a human right’, what we are really saying is government should behave a certain way with respect to X for all humans.

Imagine a person on a deserted island: it doesn’t mean much to say she has a right to free speech. What good does it do her? Nobody is there to stifle her. When we say free speech is a human right, we mean government should not limit our speech.

Sen. Cruz said in the debate that rights are only about what government shouldn’t do — in effect, that rights are only passive. That was true of many rights in the Bill of Rights, but today we can talk about a right to an education, or a right to an attorney, or a right to accessible facilities — all of which are things government actively does.

And it’s also the case that passive rights often require government activity. After all, what would a right to liberty mean without our brave men and women in uniform?

Now you can get from a right to life straight to a right to healthcare, if you want. It’s easy — but that way won’t win your pointless Facebook arguments. Let us show you the backdoor, in which a right to healthcare becomes a conservative argument as well.

Conservatives love to talk about getting government out of healthcare. If government took a hike, they say, everyone would be better off. To some extent, they have a point: government makes a lot of rules for healthcare that end up limiting access for many people.

For example, making some drugs prescription-only limits care to anyone who can afford to see a doctor for a prescription. Allowing only FDA-approved drugs to be sold limits the availability of medicines. Protecting patented drugs against cheaper imitators also limits care. There are lots of these rules, some obvious and some subtle, but most of us see the value in many (if not most) of those rules for maintaining a functional healthcare system.

But the fact that these rules kick some people out of the system creates a problem that government is then obliged to address. If government had zero involvement in healthcare, it might — very tiny might — make sense to say there is no right to healthcare. But as soon as government makes a rule that limits people getting healthcare, it makes sense to claim a right to healthcare — to get those people back in to the system.

Where this takes on an arch—conservative flavor is that one of the most basic rules the government makes is physician licensing — requiring doctors to obtain government issued licenses. This may sound like a good idea because it protects patients, but it mostly protects doctors from competition.

So said Milton Friedman, economist hearthrob of the right wing. Fifty years ago Friedman warned doctors that physician licensing would lead to socialized medicine (here’s the video).

Did physicians ever campaign against licensing? Did Republicans? Is the GOP talking about repealing licensing now? Yet Sen. Cruz spent most of the debate describing Obamacare as socialized medicine.

It’s strange how free market principles only ever apply to the vulnerable and powerless. Going after the ACA (or Medicaid or Medicare) isn’t a defense of markets; it’s a defense of power. Folks who attack these programs in the name of free markets should start at the beginning: go after licenses, or go home. Anything less condones the idea that government has the power to deny healthcare to the American people.

In the meantime, we think it makes more sense to say: we have a right to healthcare. We will keep fighting for that right, until it is fully realized in our healthcare system.

(Photo ‘health care justice march‘ by Flickr user United Workers via Creative Commons license.)

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