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Is Health Care a Right?

Posted Oct 08 2009 2:21pm
The U.S. Supreme Court has opined that we cannot falsely scream Fire! in a crowded theater, despite our sacrosanct right of free speech. Even sacred rights have limits. When individual rights collide with societal rights, then each side’s arguments must be weighed to determine whose rights will prevail. This is not a clean or satisfying process as each claimant brings passion and legitimate arguments to the table.

I have been involved in a cyber colloquy with Maggie Mahar at Health Beat discussing if health care is a right. Maggie is well known in health care circles and examines health care policy from a liberal perspective. She’s on the left and I’m not. I hesitate to define health care is an absolute right before considering some of the broader ethical ramifications.

  • Is health care a human right?

  • Is health care a constitutional right?

  • Is health care a privilege?

  • Is health care a commodity to be purchased at the discretion of the consumer?

  • Is health care a responsibility?

A laudable position is that every American has a right to health care. While this slogan sounds noble, what does it really mean? Does it mean that every citizen has a right to every available medical benefit? Or, would every American have a right to a basic package of medical benefits? Who would define these scaled down benefit packages? If someone with the guaranteed ‘no frills’ plan needed chemotherapy or a bone marrow transplant, which are not covered benefits, would we be prepared to act as the infamous ‘death panels’, recently vocalized by several conservative commentators?

My hesitancy in declaring a health care a right it that it ignores the necessary elements of personal responsibility and societal rights. While there is a potent moral argument that we provide every citizen with decent health care, this must be balanced against society’s interest in a system that allocates health care resources fairly. Here are some hypothetical issues to consider.

  • If health care is a natural right, then, are illegal aliens entitled to it as a basic human right? If not, then what is our response when they develop chronic illnesses, which cannot be effectively treated in emergency departments?
  • Do irresponsible or reckless individuals have an absolute right to health care? Is it fair to the rest of us to pay for health care for those who pursue a riskier lifestyle? Does a man with multiple DUI citations, for example, have the same right to health care as a practicing nun?
  • Should individuals who won’t take cardiac medications that they can afford, or see their physicians when advised to do so, have a right for emergency treatment for a heart attack at our expense?
  • If health care is truly a right, then should it be illegal for any citizen in America to not have medical coverage? If this were the case now, then who would be legally liable for the 46 million uninsured?
  • Can folks waive their right to health care, as the Amish community now does? Who pays when this individual needs emergency surgery?

These are very delicate issues that torment folks on all sides of the political spectrum. The Nation , an organization on the far left and the more moderate newspaper USA Today , both agree that health care is a right. The Foundry , Crystal Clear Conservative and KevinMD have reached a different conclusion. It is an enormous challenge to establish a stable equilibrium balancing society’s rights, human compassion, personal rights, medical ethics and fiscal realities. I can’t solve it, but I know that the proclamation health care is a right is a quixotic mantra that fails to appreciate the enormous complexity of the issue. If rights were so easy to establish, then we wouldn't need a judiciary.

It is possible that the Supreme Court may hear this case. While this gang of nine are the last word on determining rights, this doesn't mean they will get it right.

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