A Right to Healthcare – Its not that Simple

Winston  Oct 29, 2022

Yes, I will try to answer your question. I understand your training has led you to believe that healthcare is a right. Why, you ask, did I pause before saying,  “It’s not that simple. But if it were, the answer would have to be no.”

Consider first what is meant by the term, healthcare. Like most words, it is likely interpreted differently by almost everyone. The views will run from having clean water, a family doctor available for medical problems to those that would include anything to do with a person’s health.  These are widely divergent categories of products and services based on different delivery systems and business models.  It is almost impossible to discuss a ‘right to healthcare’ without understanding everything that is included in the discussion – the components of healthcare. 

It is not the only term that needs to be defined. What do the promoters mean by the word, right? Maybe it is best to consider its meaning first.  

When right is used as a noun, as it is in a ‘right to healthcare,’ common definitions according to Merriam-Webster include:  qualities of moral correctness or moral propriety; something to which someone has a just claim; something to which someone may claim as their due; and, a cause of truth or justness.  The proponents of a ‘right to healthcare’ usually mean the second or third of these definitions, a just claim or their due.

Healthcare has only one definition listed. Merriam-Webster defines it as ‘efforts to maintain or restore physical, mental or emotional well-being especially by trained or licensed professionals.’  Practically speaking, this definition would essentially cover all aspects of personal and public health. It would include the fields of preventive medicine, public health and personal medical care along with institutional medical care. Each of these fields is unique in how it is currently organized and delivered while sharing some common features. The shared features include the need for physical plants of operation, equipment to provide the services, support staff to carry out the services and a professional staff. These factors are needed in varying quantities and of different types for each of these fields of endeavors.

For clearer understanding we need to look more specifically at the services included in healthcare. These would include public health services, preventive medicine services (public or individual), individual’s urgent and chronic medical care, and institutional care (hospitalization and similar). We need to consider all the services that might be determined to be healthcare.

Public health is widely practiced throughout most local communities in our country.   Public health services maintain and ensure clean water and adequate sewers, track communicable diseases and advise the population about those diseases. Their services, physical plant, equipment, staff and professionals are paid for and employed by government units. They are paid for by taxes and by fees for water and sewer services. For the majority of urban areas in this country, these health services are for all practical purposes already a right provided by the government. Certainly, there are exceptions for rural and smaller communities, but most citizens already enjoy public health as a government service.  Paid for by their taxes.

Preventive medical services are currently provided by both government operations and individual medical providers. Examples of government services include monitoring of new and current medications for problems, providing recommendations for vaccinations, and monitoring of medical devices. Again, the facilities, staff, equipment and professionals are supplied and paid for by the government taxes and fees usually paid by the businesses for the service.

At a more personal level, physicians, providers, healthcare businesses and employers  (insurance companies, medical practices, clinics, hospitals and businesses) may provide guidance and assistance on preventive medical measures that an individual needs. These businesses provide the physical plant, staff, equipment and professional organization needed. The expense for these services is recouped through fees, insurance payment, employers and other methods. The healthcare provided at this level is the first at which an individual may be responsible for all or part of the cost of the services.

The next component leads further into individual responsibility, providing an individual’s urgent and ongoing medical care. This is the form of healthcare we are familiar with and what is most often thought of when discussing ‘a right to healthcare’. In our country’s history, these services have been provided by individual professionals who own and operate their own businesses. Recent change in economics, economic policy and legal structures of medical businesses has led to more large organizations (hospitals and insurance companies) owning more of these types of businesses. In these operations in any form, the expenses – from cotton swabs to physician income – are paid for by individuals, either directly or through surrogates (employers, insurances or others).

An individual’s surrogates are the primary payees for the institutional care portion of our healthcare delivery system. This portion of healthcare, hospitalization primarily, is where the largest cost (facilities, equipment, staff and professionals) occurs. Again, most of the cost is paid for by individuals or their surrogates.  

In these areas of healthcare where the individual is mostly responsible for the cost of the service, there is one major group of individuals that is not responsible directly. Those are individuals on government insurance such as Medicare.  In Medicare and other government plans, a person may have a markedly reduced or no exposure to the direct cost of the services.  Those who argue for a ‘right to healthcare” would like all services for all citizens to be paid for by the government.

My comments have gone on long enough so I will save my additional thoughts for a future letter. I would add in closing what I think summarizes the whole question.

A ‘right to healthcare’ should mean everyone has access to and freedom to decide how to obtain their healthcare.  At present, I would argue that it is already the case, but it is disappearing rapidly.  In reality, the discussion is not about freedom to get healthcare, but getting healthcare for free.