Ken’s Take on the World


Healthcare: Privilege or Right?

As Republicans struggle to obtain enough votes in the US Senate to pass their version of a bill (Better Care Reconciliation Act) that was originally brought forward to repeal, and replace, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) much focus has been placed upon the economic costs and the personal costs to those who would be affected should this legislation become enacted into law.  As one who has paid attention to the debate over healthcare access for the past three decades, I have been thinking of a much deeper question that we should be asking of ourselves as it would, perhaps, better drive the debate over this legislation.  The question that each of us should ask is this:  Should healthcare be considered a privilege, a commodity, that should be available only to those who can afford such care or, should it be considered a necessary right for every person that must be protected, and assured by government?

 

When I have posed this question to those who express opposition to the ACA, the most common response that I receive is that healthcare should be treated as any other service that a person would seek out.  The most common support offered for this position is that every person receiving services should be required to pay for such services.  To bolster this claim, these critics argue that it is not fair to expect others to pay for services that they receive.  On its face this appears to be a reasonable argument that must be considered.  After all, you wouldn’t take your car to a mechanic and not be expected to pay for repairs or maintenance on your vehicle.  You don’t take your family to a restaurant and expect to receive free food, do you?  You wouldn’t call an air conditioning repair person and expect to not receive a bill for the parts and services provided, would you?  These criticisms appear to suggest that healthcare services and products are no different than whether or not your vehicle or your heating and cooling systems at home are functional.  This is a false and illogical argument.

 

When one dines out at a restaurant, one knows what they can afford and if they are unable to afford to dine at a certain establishment they simply eat dinner at home or at a less expensive restaurant.  When your air conditioner is on the fritz, if you do not have the money available for repairs, you will need to open your windows, use fans, or other methods of staying cool.  For those with underlying health conditions in which extreme heat is dangerous, communities provide cooling centers, or family and friends are often able to step in to provide temporary shelter until the air conditioning is repaired.  Even if a new central air system must be installed, the cost is almost always going to be less than $5,000 USD.  Many heating and cooling companies will also finance this amount to keep costs manageable.  Similarly, if you need repairs on your automobile, you can determine what are the most crucial and pay for those and defer other repairs until later.  Or, your community may have decent public transportation available.  Or, you may be able to car-pool to work or use a ride-sharing service.

 

Healthcare, unlike these other services, is not a commodity that can simply be delayed in many cases.  I have frequently likened the provision of healthcare as an essential service that must be available to every single person.  Similar to a community that provides fire departments and trained personnel to operate this life-saving equipment.  Or, law enforcement agencies that respond to safety or criminal complaints.  Or, military agencies like the Coast Guard who respond to emergencies on our nation’s waterways.  We don’t bat an eye when we are asked to fund these critical services.  As a society, we have come to realize these are critical pieces of infrastructure that exist for the benefit of each of us even if we never need to directly use these services.  Why, then, do we look at healthcare differently?

When I have attempted to discern how so-called conservatives continue to maintain the position that healthcare is a commodity, and not a right, in addition to the arguments about paying for services and the burdens of having to pay for those who cannot afford these services, they remind me that healthcare services are already provided to people in the nation’s Emergency Departments (ED) regardless of one’s ability to pay for such care.  This, then, implies there is, in fact, some existential right to healthcare.  When I point out this inconsistency in logic, one person actually mentioned that fewer (uninsured) people seek medical care as if this implies lower costs to taxpayers.  The problem with this (il)logic is that while uninsured individuals are far less likely to present to a primary care physician in the community setting, they are far more likely to present to an ED for treatment of conditions that can be much more effectively, and economically, managed in a community setting by a primary care physician.  This translates into significantly increased healthcare costs for all of us.  The average cost of an ED visit in the United States is nearly $2,200 based on a study described in “The Atlantic.”  Compare this to the average cost to a primary care provider (PCP) in the US which is only $100 based on an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (ARHQ) study by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

 

A review of multiple studies has demonstrated that access to health insurance is correlated with significantly improved health outcomes.  The review, published recently in the “New England Journal of Medicine” (NEJM), documents that improved healthcare outcomes are especially notable among pediatric patients.  Further, this review notes that not only are healthcare outcomes improved, but other measures of quality of life, including educational achievement, are improved with access to health insurance.  Other studies have demonstrated the significant economic consequences associated with illness.  I am not only speaking of the direct costs associated with providing medically-necessary care, but the impacts that illness and preventable injury have on individual and societal economic stability and growth.

 

I believe we must frame the debate over access to health insurance as one of a necessary right that must be protected by government actions.  Only then, will we be able to determine the most effective means of financing healthcare in the United States.

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