The Urgency of Now

Last week, President Obama hosted a health care summit, initiating a process to fulfill a key campaign promise: fixing our broken health care system.  Critics, and more than a few allies, wondered aloud whether he is taking on too much at once in pushing for health care reform while restarting the economy and repairing our banking system.  To the contrary, the question is whether he will take on enough.

Virtually all of America’s leaps forward in opportunity and economic security have emerged from crises that laid bare longstanding flaws in our national or international systems.  The Civil War produced Reconstruction and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14<sup>th</sup> Amendment.  The Great Depression produced Social Security, child labor laws, and worker protections.  World War II produced the GI Bill, while the horrors of the Holocaust led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  And the direct action and constitutional crises of the civil rights movement produced a social and legal shift that has helped expand opportunity across lines race, gender, class, disability, and sexual orientation.

In each case, the underlying problems—slavery and racism, poverty and child exploitation, oppression and economic insecurity—had existed long before.  But the extreme urgency of the moment made transformative action possible.

Likewise, the time to move health care reform is now, when millions of Americans have been thrown out of work, major industries and institutions are in jeopardy, and basic economic security is at risk for large swaths of our population.  Those conditions make plain to America in ways that detailed reports and poignant speeches cannot that our health care system is not working for our country, much less for a growing number of families and individuals.

The extreme circumstances of today highlight that the conservative mantras of “limited government,” and “socialized medicine” ring hollow when the ability to take your sick kid to the doctor hinges on whether the next round of layoffs happens this week or the following.  The human but irrational tendency to blame ailing fellow Americans because they lack access to health care plans designed to exclude them withers away when those Americans are our neighbors, our family members, ourselves.

There’s another reason to take these problems on at the same time.  They are intimately related.  Escalating health insurance and health care costs are weighing down businesses, suppressing consumer confidence, and adding to public alarm.  Because the system was broken long before the current economic crisis laid it bare, systemic reform is crucial to a lasting recovery.

But not all health care reform is created equal.  During the campaign, and particularly in his third debate with Senator McCain, then-candidate Obama said clearly that health care is a right, not just a privilege.  And a large majority of the US public agrees: when asked whether access to health care should be considered a human right, a whopping 89% of Americans said yes, in a national opinion survey conducted by The Opportunity Agenda last year, with 72% “strongly” holding that view.

Recognizing health care as a human right has specific implications for policy reform.  It requires a system that includes and is affordable to everyone, that provides equal access and quality for all Americans, that is responsive to the differing needs of the nation’s diverse communities, and that ensures public accountability.

That means, for example, that doctors and hospitals must be reimbursed at the same rates for providing the same basic care to low-income and affluent patients and neighborhoods—ensuring that health care providers have an equal incentive to serve those communities.  It means addressing the well-documented unequal treatment that many patients of color receive in the health care system.  It means providing adequate training and resources to serve communities with diverse cultures and languages.

It also means that results matter; if, as in our current system, patients and whole communities are failing to receive needed care, the human right to care is being violated.  When that happens, patients must have effective recourse and remedy—not necessarily through lawsuits, but through clear accountability and review mechanisms that are available to all and not dependent upon the whim of insurance company bureaucrats.

The human right to health care is an idea whose time has come, and the current economic crisis simply amplifies that truth.<span style="">  </span>As the Great Depression called for FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights,” and WWII and the Holocaust demanded a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, today’s crisis requires a human right to health care.  The nation’s economic, as well as physical health, depends on it.

Read more at The Opportunity Agenda's blog.

Tags: Health, Opportunity (all tags)

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