Jayne: Doesn’t matter if health care is a right, it’s the right thing

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Editor



Greg Jayne, Opinion page editor

The argument seems specious, which makes it like so many other facets of the debate over health care.

Is access to health care a right? Is it a privilege? Is it a widget to be bartered and sold and dangled in front of the clamoring masses? That, for some self-defeating reason, has become central to the public debate over health insurance, with conservatives often arguing that access to care is not a right. It is not, they say, unalienable, such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

We could argue that health care should be conflated with life, considering, you know, that it has a little something to do with keeping people alive. But that is a discussion for another day; we aren’t feeling quite that adventurous.

Instead, we shall question why this notion of health care as a “right” for all Americans has become central to the debate. Because whether or not it is a right, providing access to health care for all seems moral, prudent, conscientious, proper, principled, ethical and virtuous. Whether or not access to health care is a right, it is the right thing to do, even for those on the Right — which confirms that the word “right” has far too many definitions.

More important, it is smart — an assertion that requires some explanation.

There is a school of thought — one not without merit — that says those who are not in a position to afford health care shall reap what they sow. If a citizen has made choices that render them unable to purchase or qualify for health care, well, those are the breaks; the rest of us should not have to pay for their coverage.

That is, indeed, an attractive philosophy. Personal responsibility, and all that. Yet it doesn’t add up.

The Emergency Medical and Treatment Labor Act, signed by President Reagan in 1986, prohibits hospitals from turning away patients because of an inability to pay. If a citizen does not have health insurance, that doesn’t prevent them from getting sick; it just means the rest of us pay the entire bill when they do.

Meanwhile, providing access to health care keeps costs down in the long run through preventive care. As the surgeon general of the United States reports: “Research from the Milken Institute suggests that a modest reduction in avoidable risk factors could lead to a gain of more than $1 trillion annually in labor supply and efficiency by 2023.”

These are simplistic explanations for an issue that is, indeed, complex. As President Trump said in February, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” Well, nobody except for everybody.

We need honesty

So, Republicans in Congress have responded with plans that would lead to fewer people being covered. The House proposal, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, would result in 23 million fewer people having coverage a decade from now. Many conservatives reacted to this shocking assessment in the mature and responsible manner that you would expect — they suggested the CBO should be abolished.

The Senate then came up with a similar bill after cloak-and-dagger negotiations. Some have pointed out that Democrats passed Obamacare while saying: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it,” a statement as foolish as it was dismissive. But at least Democrats held numerous public hearings and held open debate.

The gist of all this is that the American people deserve better. Goodness knows, we deserve better. More than anything, we deserve honesty, and the truth is that Republicans are more concerned with erasing Obama’s legacy than they are with improving health care. That might seem reasonable, considering that Trump ran on an anti-Obama platform and won the election by minus-3 million votes. But it doesn’t seem smart.

Providing tax breaks for the wealthy while slashing Medicaid does not seem like an effective way to make America great again. Regardless of whether or not health care is a right.