Is healthcare a human right?
Is healthcare a human right? The simplest answer is yes. The United Nations (UN) adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and it includes healthcare as a basic human right as stated below:
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
Never mind the outdated patriarchal language using the masculine pronoun. So why is healthcare coverage still a debate? Everything I know about healthcare makes me confused about this question. I’ve been working in the healthcare field for over ten years. I’ve worked in community centers, hospitals, and for managed care. Nothing I’ve seen suggests that less health coverage is good for society. So instead of repeating all the same stories about why we need coverage, I decided to look into why we don’t need universal healthcare.
The first website I went to, ProCon.org, used the headline “Should All Americans Have the Right (Be Entitled) to Health Care?” As a member of the UN, it seems we’ve already answered this question because we should be following the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But as anyone who has gone to the doctor in the United States without health insurance or a wad of cash knows these standards aren’t being met.
There are three common arguments against healthcare for all (aka Medicare for All, Single-Payor Healthcare, and Universal Healthcare) in the United States.
Cost is the number one argument against universal healthcare. Getting a clear estimate of what it would cost to provide healthcare to everyone in the U.S. is incredibly complicated. I have not found a reliable number, mostly because there are so many considerations. Any guess is hypothetical because we don’t know what a universal healthcare plan would cost but any consideration of cost has to include decreased administrative and advertising costs that private insurances have, the savings in bankruptcies from healthcare costs, the savings from people using preventative care rather than emergency services or worse, not getting care at all.
Another concern with universal healthcare is that the quality of care that people receive may drop. The argument is that when the market pushes medical advancements, quality is driven up because companies are competing to be the best. When the government interferes with the free market there is less motivation for innovation. Johnathan Cohan argues that while it’s possible that we could create a system with these consequences, we wouldn’t have to. Universal healthcare does not inevitably limit innovation. He points out that the largest source of medical research in the world is the National Institute of Health (NIH). There is no reason it would be impacted by a change in our healthcare system because it’s funding is completely separate. He also points out that the market will focus on short term financial gains rather than long term benefits, which is one of the reasons NIH is so critical to medical advancements.
Another quality concern is that the wait time for services may increase. Many countries with universal health care have longer wait times for appointments, particularly for specialists, than the United States. For example, average wait time to see a specialist in the U.S. is less than 3 weeks, compared to the more than 8 week wait in Canada where there is universal healthcare. Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) asserts that wait times are a result of management techniques, not an unavoidable consequence of providing healthcare. They clarify that the wait times in other countries often quoted are for non-emergent procedures like hip replacements and that wait time for urgent matters has not been an issue. Canada has been steadily improving their system to reduce wait times even for non-emergent care. PNHP also points out that the United States spends twice what Canada does per person on healthcare, which should be enough to develop a queuing system that works.
The argument that universal health care will bring us closer to socialism isn’t hypothetical in the same way as the financial and quality arguments. The fear of socialism can be addressed right now. The general idea in the socialism argument is that healthcare is a service and people should have to pay for it. If the government pays for it then we’re one step closer to socialism. This point of view assumes that socialism is bad. That’s a topic for another day so let’s set it aside and assume that we are trying to avoid socialism. Even in our capitalistic society, there are services that we all chip in on and let the government manage. The fire department is a great example. My taxes pay for the local fire department even though I have never called the fire department. I am paying for a service that other citizens use but I don’t. We could do that differently. We could have the fire department charge you when you call them out.
“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”
“My house is on fire.”
“Okay, before I send the truck round, do you have fire department coverage or $5000 cash to cover this service?”
Most people feel like this is unreasonable because it is an emergency service that shouldn’t be withheld because of a person’s financial status. It’s also good for the community to promptly put out a fire because fire can spread from one house to another. The same argument can be made for healthcare. If we make medical services free the way that the fire department is, people wouldn’t wait until they are so sick that it is an emergency. Emergency care is much more expensive than preventative services. When people can’t pay their astronomical emergency bills, they go bankrupt and tax payers pick up the tab anyway. It’s more cost efficient (and humane) to pay for the cheaper, preventable services upfront—just like it’s more cost efficient to put out the first house fire than it is to have to rebuild the whole block.
It’s hard to make the case that healthcare isn’t a human right by any existing definition of human rights, but it’s clear we haven’t figured out how to protect that human right. We can’t pretend that there aren’t financial and quality issues that need to be considered but I would argue that they aren’t insurmountable. We have figured out how to pay for a massive and unnecessary military. Advances in weapons development hasn’t been stymied by the being the sole provider of military preparedness. We haven’t fallen to socialism by law enforcement being paid for by taxes. It’s a matter of priority. When universal healthcare becomes a priority for the United States, we will find a way to make it work.
Article by Claire Ryder
VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist