This all started a few weeks ago, And it seemed like a good idea at the time. Far-fetched as it sounds, I wanted to show how providing health care for the poor might actually benefit the rest of us. I figured if we won’t do it for the right reasons, concern for fellow human beings, maybe profit would be a more tempting incentive. I was motivated by a University of Northern Iowa teacher and regular columnist in our area newspaper. He likes to say, repeatedly, as in over and over and over and over, that medical care is not a human right. Not long ago he insisted that those who call health care a human right “are implying that a person should receive care irrespective of any ability to compensate the providers of the care, who also have to eat and pay rent and taxes.” When I read that, I very nearly responded aloud, “That’s exactly what I had in mind.” And I wasn’t even smart enough to be ashamed.
He continues writing “To say that someone has a ‘human right’ to health care is to suggest that someone, or some entity, with enough coercive power will take resources from one person to be distributed to someone else.” And “All of this can be seen as a recognition that a redistribution of wealth requiring governmental force is an immoral exercise on the same order as theft.”
I hadn’t really thought of it as soaking the rich to pay for the care of people who just don’t try hard enough. My original idea was to show that those people who would have their wealth “redistributed” to provide for the health care of the less fortunate might actually benefit from the transaction. I intended to demonstrate how it would benefit our society, the rich, the middle class, and the poor if people who cannot afford private health insurance did not have to worry about financial destitution because of health expenses.
If you honestly feel that poverty is the result of some basic inferiority, lack of character, lack of ambition, much as I would like to pound you about the head and shoulders, I probably can’t talk you out of it. If you feel that poverty is not sufficient punishment for failure to measure up, maybe the possibility that you would personally benefit from helping people you don’t know could be more convincing.
First, I could explain how a world in which our health did not depend on private insurance might mean that corporations, and their stockholders, wouldn’t be expected to provide coverage for their employees, freeing hundreds of millions of dollars for development— new ideas, new products, new jobs, new profits. Money could go into salaries. Entrepreneurs would not be hindered by the fear of having to live without insurance. It might be possible to live on two or more part time jobs because health coverage would not be a concern. More would undoubtedly go to taxes, but it should not be more than is already allocated for private health insurance. The only losers would be the big insurance companies and their profits. And to tell the truth, I’m not feeling the love.
Secondly, I wanted to point out how we already accept the premise that the well to do have a larger responsibility for public programs. All citizens receive pretty much the same federal services: national defense, law enforcement, food and drug regulation, road construction, economic development programs. We all pay, but we pay according to our abilities, and we benefit to differing degrees. A public health system would certainly be similar. We all pay, but we pay at varying rates , much like Medicare, where we all benefit when we reach the age of 65, but we have contributed according to our abilities. And most people accept the fact. They recognize that our society benefits, and when society benefits, the rich benefit to a proportionately greater degree as citizens are better able to support themselves rather than draw on public assistance.
Finally, I would show how we have long ago accepted an analogous responsibility where we recognize the advantage of providing everyone with an education. We allow parents to choose private schools as an alternative, if they wish, but only after they have made their contribution to the publicly supported schools. Why should health care be so different? We spend billions of dollars each year in this country to educate our young people because we recognize the fact that we are all better off if we don’t have to live in a country full of dumb people. Poverty and crime become the norm in a society that refuses to value education. In the same way, poverty and crime become more common in a society that does not recognize the value of human life. Even the very rich, who can afford to live apart from the victims of that attitude, are better off if they can reduce the number of people who cannot afford health care. If we are willing to include others in our health care pool , we can avoid the massive social problems that result from a permanently destitute underclass. Poverty, crime, plummeting land values, all are the natural results of people being unable to care for themselves and their families. We do not want to deal with the overwhelming problems that arise from a destitute lower class.
After reading over this, I must admit to the dawning realization that some people just aren’t going to buy it. To them the question will always remain, “Is health care a human right, or not?” To them it will always be a case of “They haven’t earned it; they don’t deserve what they can’t get for themselves; they do deserve whatever misery they find themselves in.”
Maybe, ultimately, we need to realize that, for many reasons, morally and economically, it’s just the right thing to do. No, we don’t “have to” do it. But, sometimes, an idea is so ethically obligatory that the real question isn’t if we can afford it, but what will it take for us to get it done? We’ll all be better off when fewer of our fellow human beings have to suffer from a denial of needed health care.