Health care as a right is here to stay

Posted May 17, 2010, at 5:13 p.m.

A right is something we would all demand be guaranteed to us if we had no other way to secure it when we needed it. It sustains life and liberty, is something most of us have, and those who don’t have it suffer for lack of that right.

By those definitions and many others, health care has finally become a right in America. It’s a toddler of a right, to be sure, barely able to walk, easily toppled for a time if pushed, and not yet ready to play with the big kid rights of speech and voting, but a right nonetheless. It has not been enshrined in an amendment to the Constitution, and may never be, but there is no ignoring this baby, and no putting it back. Health care as a right is here to stay.

Maine’s Republican Party tried to deny that recently, adopting a plank in its party platform that said “health care is not a right. It is a service.” But the simple fact the party’s faithful had to explicitly nail that plank into place this year, instead of assuming it went without saying, suggests it is a board rotting slowly of neglect. That neglect will be particularly visible in elections in Maine and America this spring and fall; few candidates who want to have a chance of election past the primaries will dare to stand up in front of voters worried about their health care and say that it is not a right.

Certainly a politician running for office would not stand in front of an audience of voters over the age of 65 and tell them their Medicare is not a right. To do so as a politician would not simply be to touch the third rail of American politics but to put your political tongue on it. That means health care is effectively a right for the most influential and fastest growing segment of the American population, and many of them think it should be a right for their children and grandchildren as well.

And they are not alone. Health care is effectively a right for more than 260 million Americans, guaranteed to them, in essence, by their health insurance. Armed forces members and most veterans have it, state and federal government employees have it, most working Americans have it through their employers, and the poor who qualify for Medicaid have it.

Reflecting that reality, most of the debate in American politics about health insurance circles around how to make sure everyone else can have it and how we all can keep it by making it affordable.

I’d bet that the most ardent opponent of the right to health care in America would insist on that right if he showed up in the ER gasping his last breath and could not have his life saved unless he could pay for it. Everyone in America is guaranteed at least emergency health care, through hospital emergency departments that are forbidden by federal law to turn anyone away just because they cannot pay for their care.

There was a day when health care was not a right worth fighting for. Care was so limited it made little difference in whether we lived or died. Not any more; now lack of health care can mean loss of life, loss of liberty to the prisons of preventable disease and economic ruin and loss of the ability to even pursue the happiness of reasonably good health.

There was also a day when health care was affordable to more of us without access to health insurance. Now none but the richest among us can afford to pay for our own serious and chronic illnesses. Complete and successful treatment of metastatic breast cancer, for example, cannot be afforded by virtually any woman in the American middle class without health insurance.

Health care has become a right in America because the lack of it can determine life and death, because most of us cannot afford it on our own even when we live and work responsibly and because that’s the only way to guarantee something we all want and need. And it was just wrong when it was not a right.

Erik Steele, D.O., a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems and is on the staff of several hospital emergency rooms in the region. He is also the interim CEO at Blue Hill Memorial Hospital.

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