Health law and justice
We should consider health care a human right
The June 28 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the U.S. health-care reform law answered a narrow legal question: How much power does the Constitution grant to the federal government? But the future of health care in the United States depends upon the answers to broad moral questions: Is health care a human right? Should justice and compassion be the guiding principles in efforts to reform a system that discriminates against the poor and uninsured?
People of faith are among those who say the answer to both questions is yes.
The Affordable Care Act, though it lacks the efficiency of a single-payer system (“Medicare for all”) that works well in Canada, should add tens of millions of people to the rolls of the insured, moving the U.S. closer to the goal of universal coverage.
Mennonites have advocated for several provisions of the Affordable Care Act. A list of health-care principles adopted by Mennonite Church USA in 2007 called for eliminating financial and health status as barriers to health-care access. The newly upheld law moves toward these goals by expanding Medicaid coverage, subsidizing insurance for the poor and preventing insurance companies from denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions.
The Affordable Care Act aims to improve a bad situation — a health-care system plagued by waste and inefficiency. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that uses profit-driven private insurance to fund its health care. We pay more but get less. The U.S. spends $8,000 per person on health care annually — more than twice as much as the rest of the industrialized world — but performs poorly compared to other rich nations on life expectancy, infant mortality and immunization rates.
Poor health outcomes — shorter lives, infant deaths, illnesses due to failure to immunize — are just one form of injustice in the current system. Another is the rationing of care based on income and employment. Those who can’t afford insurance forgo treatment. An estimated 45,000 Americans die every year because they lack insurance and can’t pay for needed care.
The suffering that results from a lack of adequate care places health-care access squarely in the category of a fundamental right. We are responsible — collectively as a nation and individually as people of faith — to uphold this right. Caring for the sick is an act of obedience to God; ensuring that conditions exist in which the sick will be cared for is a duty of the state. The prophet Ezekiel (34:4) cited inattention to health care in an indictment of Israel’s leaders: “You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured.”
A modern prophet, Martin Luther King Jr., declared: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” A rich nation with 50 million uninsured has a human-rights problem. The law that has passed a legal test represents progress toward justice.
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