Health Care as a Human Right in the United States

For many, the underlying question in thinking about the financing of health care should be, “Is healthcare a human right?”  For low-income countries around the world, this question is usually a theoretical one – the public share of total health expenditures in low-income countries is 29% (Gottret 12).  However, in higher income countries this question has a variety of practical implications as it determines the financial assistance, both domestically and abroad, that a country is willing to provide for health care.  Should a nation make it a priority that all of its citizens be insured?  How much is too much money for an individual to pay for health care?  How much of a country’s budget should go towards providing health care to other countries?

By all measurements, the United States ranks as one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  Despite this being the case, they have taken a somewhat ambiguous stance regarding the question of health care as a human right.  As Gottret points out, “Nearly all high-income countries, with the exception of the United States, have achieved universal, or near universal, health care coverage. (Gottret 30).”    In 2010, The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that there were 49.1 million Americans who lacked health care insurance.  While the recently passed Affordable Care Act seeks to change this, many wonder if it goes far enough.  At the same time, the United States has been the global leader in funding health care initiatives in many low-income countries around the world.  In 2010 alone, the United States directed $7.9 billion of its federal budget towards investments in global health (www.gatesfoundation.org).  This type of financial commitment, especially in the midst of its own economic woes, would lead many to believe that the United States views health care as a human right.  However, the situation at home paints a much different picture.

Since President Obama decided to make it his number one priority upon taking office in 2009, health care reform has dominated the national conversation.  Once obscure terms like individual mandate, preexisting conditions, and public option quickly became part of the national vernacular.  As the debate raged on, everyone seemed to have an opinion on what role the government should take in providing health insurance to its citizens.  These opinions usually focused on the more quantifiable aspects of the proposed reform – cost, % covered, etc.  Surprisingly enough, the debate rarely focused on the more philosophical question of whether or not health care should be a human right that is afforded and protected by the government.

The United States, as it grappled with every aspect of health care, could have been the perfect setting for a thoughtful discussion on whether health care should be considered a human right.  Many could have questioned the logic in making education available to everyone but not enabling everyone to have access to affordable health care.  Instead of wondering aloud about the moral implications of a country that does not provide universal coverage to its citizens, the United States decided to mostly crunch numbers and be bogged down by petty political games.  Its narrow passing of the Affordable Care Act, coupled with the sizable amount of money it has given on behalf of global health efforts, seems to indicate that United States considers health care to be hugely important.  However, the jury is still out on whether the United States is ready to join the rest of the world’s high-income countries in declaring health care to be a human right.

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