Is health care a privilege or a right?

Jonathan Chait at New York magazine asks what I think is an obvious question: Do those who want the Supreme Court to overturn the Affordable Care Act tomorrow believe that access to health care is an "earned privilege"–something you can get only if you can afford it or work? Chait:

"Opponents of the law have endlessly invoked “socialism.” Nothing in the Affordable Care Act or any part of President Obama’s challenges the basic dynamics of market capitalism. All sides accept that some of us should continue to enjoy vastly greater comforts and pleasures than others. If you don’t work as hard as Mitt Romney has, or were born less smart, or to worse parents, or enjoyed worse schools, or invested your skills in an industry that collapsed, or suffered any other misfortune, then you will be punished for this. Your television may be low-definition, or you might not be able to heat or cool your home as comfortably as you would like; you may clothe your children in discarded garments from the Salvation Army.

"This is not in dispute. What is being disputed is whether the punishments to the losers in the market system should include, in addition to these other things, a denial of access to non-emergency medical treatment. The Republican position is that it should. They may not want a woman to have to suffer an untreated broken ankle for lack of affordable treatment. Likewise, I don’t want people to be denied nice televisions or other luxuries. I just don’t think high-definition television or nice clothing are goods that society owes to one and all. That is how Republicans think about health care."

Chait obviously has a partisan agenda here, but I think his critique is on target, and he goes on to point out that, while ACA opponents clamor for its overturn or repeal, they offer nothing to replace the access to health care it will provide tens of millions of Americans, many of them poor. Rep. Paul Ryan's budget actually throws millions more poor people off Medicaid.

Catholic social teaching has long held access to health care to be a fundamental human right. So as a Catholic, the only question for me is how we provide it. The hybrid employer and private market system we have now has clearly failed to provide access to something like 50 million Americans (with another 25 million barely covered), so obviously we need one that will. If the individual mandate goes, the only other option I see is single-payer health care.

Perhaps there are other options, but as one who believes that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God and who believes that the way we treat the weakest members of the human family (including the sick) is the way we treat Christ, failing to make health care available to every member of society is simply unacceptable. The only question left is how we pay for it.

About the author

Bryan Cones

Bryan Cones is a writer living in Chicago.