Access To Healthcare: Right or Privilege?

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When the United States forefathers guaranteed the right to “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, it became part of the country’s bedrock. Of course, those aren’t the only rights that Americans expect these days, and interpretation has broadened so that when the founding fathers talk about the inalienable rights of men, which used to mean “free, white men who own property,” we now interpret to men “all men and women.” So, it’s no surprise that while healthcare isn’t mentioned in the country’s founding documents, more and more Americans see healthcare as a right, not a privilege.

Does the United States Uphold This View?

When you go online and start your Obamacare open enrollment, you’re taking part in the culmination of half a century of thought on the value of healthcare. The World Health Organization‘s constitution declares that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.”

The 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Culture Rights bound ratifying states to protect the right to health. It’s not a surprise then, that the United States, which has been behind every other developed nation in its healthcare, signed but did not ratify the agreement. Times, however, are changing, and Americans may see the ratification of this document become a hot-button issue once again. 

Why Wouldn’t Healthcare Be a Right?

There are a couple of arguments for why healthcare isn’t a right. The first is that “rights” restrain you from impeding other people’s achievement of those rights, but don’t give you an obligation to help someone achieve them. You have the right to life and liberty and so does the next guy. You don’t have to help him achieve those goals though; all that’s required is that you don’t hinder his ability to reach his own version of life and liberty.

For others, healthcare isn’t a right, but a free-market commodity that you can either afford or not. They would argue that saying healthcare is a right is akin to saying that everyone has a “right’ to a Ferrari. Most people who argue from one of these perspectives avoid the ethical discussions around whether the country’s citizens have any obligation to the very young, elderly or incapacitated. 

Is There a System That Can Make Everyone Happy?

Whether you would argue that you cannot pursue life, liberty and happiness without access to adequate healthcare, or you would argue that healthcare is a privilege that can aid in those pursuits but is not a requirement to them, in the U.S., the true question is if there is a system that can work for everyone. The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, is a step in that direction. Some say the system should be overhauled to more closely resemble Switzerland, where everyone has coverage but all of it is private insurance. Subsidies go directly to individuals to pay premiums. Others feel that only through a centralized one-payer system will healthcare be affordable for everyone. 

Educating yourself on the issues and voting to support candidates that support your views is the only way healthcare will undergo a significant long-term change in the U.S.