Health Care as a Human Right
Though it is increasingly being framed in solely economic terms, health care at its heart is an issue of human rights.
Health care reform is at the forefront of the President’s agenda right now and will be the last words uttered from Congress before they break for a month long recess next week. The talk of reform has been dominating the media and sparking action all across the country from large groups like Health Care for America NOW and Organizing For America, with thousands of supporters demanding action from Congress.
The various complex components of our broken health care system have been swirling around the heads of many Americans, while those opposing reform have been using the complexity of the issue to their advantage; to further confuse and distort the facts, using threats like “government take over” and “killing small businesses” to sway people into protecting industry instead of protecting our health and our financial stability.
With this entire debate taking place, the significant concerns have been strictly economic: Should private insurance companies have to compete with a public plan? Should Americans have to pay for reform? How much will reform cost? Should employers have to share responsibility or should they continue receiving tax breaks for providing coverage?
While all of these questions do indeed need to be answered, there are questions that have yet to be raised, and they may be the most important ones to ask: Why would we continue a system in which the health needs of a human being are reducible to a commodity? How can we ensure that every American has equal access to a quality system that meets the fundamental needs for human health? How can we ensure that no matter what class, race, gender, or sexual orientation, our citizens will not be denied care or go bankrupt trying to pay for treatment of their illnesses?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, proclaimed that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and one’s family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care.” Although this statement was adopted by our country, our government has yet to achieve any kind of formal recognition or practical realization of these rights.
Sadly, our current health care crisis unveils just how deeply we have failed at ensuring the human right to decent health and medical care for all, and instead reveals a twisted, horribly broken system that leaves the sick without the care they need, the poor without access to any care, and minorities at a large disadvantage for receiving quality care.
Why isn’t health care discussed as a human rights issue? Howard Dean addressed this question from the audience at a recent Campus Progress event, and his answer was the blunt, sad truth: the human rights message just does not seem to resonate with the American public anymore. Is this true? Ezra Klein asked the same question in a recent Washington Post article. The answer is not satisfying, especially with the statistics we know of our current health care crisis.
With close to 50 million people uninsured in the U.S., despite spending far more per capita on health care than any other country, we are the only industrialized nation to deny its citizens universal access to medical services. On top of the ridiculous number of people who are forced to simply go without health coverage, another 25 million people are underinsured, according to this report by the CommonWealth Fund. Which means their insurance plan does not cover their health needs and they are left to pay out of pocket to cover medical expenses that should be included in comprehensive coverage.
Low- and middle-income families are most affected by this underinsurance. Is it socially just to leave 75 million people lacking basic health care?
Lack of care and coverage is most prominent among minorities. African-Americans and Latinos make up nearly half of the estimated 50 million Americans who have no health care insurance, according to a report by the Commonwealth Fund. The health disparities are so stark that whites in the U.S. are expected to live six years longer on average than African-Americans, according to The Center for Economic and Social Rights. Heart disease, diabetes, and cancer account for two-thirds of all U.S. health care costs.
African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans have higher rates of all these diseases, and they fare worse in treatment. Compared to non-Latino whites, African Americans and Latinos are more likely to go without health care because they can’t afford it, according to a study conducted by Health Care for America NOW. No one has more at stake in the political debate over health care reform than the 103 million people of color. Have we really reached a state of equality if one race is suffering far more brutally than another in this health care crisis?
Racial disparities are not the only inequities that exist in our health care system; gender and sexual orientation also play a role in the disproportionate health outcomes and insurance coverage statistics. The LGBT community is often faced with barriers to coverage and care due to the familiar stigma and policies of our society that do not fully recognize their identities.
LGBT individuals are more likely to have HIV/AIDS or several cancers, such as breast, cervical, and anal cancers, according to the Center for American Progress. These diseases are labeled as “pre-existing conditions” by individual insurance providers, which is the primary reason for insurers to deny care or charge higher rates.
The LGBT community also faces extreme disadvantages for gaining health insurance for their spouses and children. Since our health insurance system is based on employer-provided coverage, the majority of working Americans that receive plans through their employers have the option to cover their spouse and family members as well.
Only six states currently recognize same-sex marriages, and nine states have some law prohibiting same-sex couples or LGBT individuals to adopt children. Therefore, the gay lesbian or bisexual worker is left without coverage for his partner or her partner’s children, while heterosexuals in the same position enjoy that benefit without question. Heterosexual women also experience higher rates and denied care based on “pre-existing conditions” simply because they are women, they give birth, and the insurers decide it is fair to charge more for their coverage due to the high medical costs of child birth.
Is it fair to deny health care to a child just because her parents are a gay or lesbian couple? Is it fair to deny coverage to one spouse but not the other simply because of their gender? Is it not absurdly inhumane to punish mothers by charging them more for health care at the time when they need it the most- at child birth?
The questions raised here are meant to spark the notion that health care policy needs to be about the right to health, instead of the economic efficiency of the health insurance market. A human rights approach focuses on the underlying purpose of the health care system. The core human rights demand is for outcomes consistent with internationally-recognized standards. Framing health care reform as a matter of right establishes a mechanism for government accountability and encourages public participation in the decisions that affect our lives and well-being.
The issues raised here are blatant equal rights issues that must be addressed. Health care needs to be simplified, health care must be universally available and accessible, and quality, diversity and cultural sensitivity must be increased. Yes we are in an economic crisis at the moment, but we also have decades of domestic neglect of fundamental human rights under our belt, and health care reform that addresses this neglect can put us in the right direction on both of these tracks, simultaneously propelling us into a brighter, more just future.
Natasha Bowens is an Advocacy Associate at Campus Progress.