In the second presidential debate, moderator Tom Brokaw asked the candidates whether health care is a privilege, a responsibility, or a right. John McCain answered privilege, while Barack Obama said that health care is a right. With nearly 46 million Americans uninsured, and millions more unable to meet their medical expenses despite having insurance, the notion of an American right to health care seems far from today’s reality. But a human right to health care is deeply rooted in our national history and values, and is broadly supported by the American people. It is an idea whose time has come.
After leading our country out of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt voiced the connection between health care and the Founding Fathers’ vision of inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In his 1944 State of the Union address, Roosevelt explained that Americans have come to embrace a “second bill of rights” alongside the civil liberties set out in the Constitution. Those rights, FDR declared, include “the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.”
Four years later, the US played a leading role in creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including … medical care and necessary social services.”
With the onset of the Cold War, the US shied away from applying economic human rights like the right to health care here at home. But some states have tried to keep the idea alive. New York State’s Constitution recognizes a right to systems that protect public health. And just this year, Connecticut passed legislation declaring that “equal enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is a human right and a priority of the state.”
A national opinion survey conducted by The Opportunity Agenda last year shows overwhelming public support for the idea that health care is a right. When asked whether access to health care should be considered a human right, a whopping 89% of Americans said yes, with 72% “strongly” holding that view.
For Americans, the right to health care is not only about personal health and economic security, but also about our shared values as a nation, including fairness, dignity, and opportunity for all. When asked why they support human rights, Americans’ most popular responses are “because it is important to treat people fairly and with dignity,” and “because America was founded on Thomas Jefferson’s belief that we all have rights that no government should take away.”
What would it mean for our nation to treat health care as a right instead of merely a privilege or solely a responsibility? Protecting the right to health care is less about the means of delivery than it is about results for everyday people. It means that any approach must realistically guarantee all Americans affordable, quality care, irrespective of where they live, what their health history is, what job they have, or whether they get laid off. It means that, unlike in our current system, the racial background of patients and neighborhoods should not influence the siting of hospitals and clinics, or the quality of care. And it means that neither insurance companies, nor HMOs, nor government bureaucrats get to decide whether Americans can get basic, necessary care.
To be sure, protecting the right to health care will require financial investment and sacrifice. But that investment will pay off many times over down the road. We’ll save lives among the 18,000 Americans who die every year for lack of health coverage. We’ll stave off bankruptcies from among the half of filings that stem from medical expenses. And we’ll save countless dollars as families who get preventative care avoid costly emergency room visits.
The 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is just 6 weeks away, on December 10, a month after Election Day. That’s a perfect time for a new president and Congress to renew our human rights legacy by guaranteeing affordable, quality health care for all.