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Reframing the Health Care Debate: Is it too late for human rights?

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As the health care public relations battle continues, the Obama administration is making moves to reframe the health care debate as "a core ethical and moral obligation."

President Obama test drove this new messaging on Wednesday evening in a health care conference call with thousands of religious leaders. Putting more emphasis on the "moral imperative" of insuring the uninsured, Obama explained: "I believe that nobody in America should be denied basic health care because he or she lacks health insurance." 
 
"The one thing you all share is a moral conviction. You know this debate over health care goes to the heart of who we are in America," Obama said. "It is a core ethical and moral obligation that we look after each other...In the wealthiest nation on earth, we are neglecting to live up to that call." 
 
Finding fresh ways to talk about socio-economic issues is not new in the health care advocacy community. Even as the Obama administration searches for a new way to pitch their proposed health reform, human rights groups and grassroots social justice networks have already been hard at work trying to shift the language and the thinking surrounding health care in the United States. They are using an oft-overlooked notion in the United States: "human rights."
 
So far the Obama administration has not used "rights" language in calling for health care reform. Instead Democrats have primarily been discussing health care reform through the lens of economic incentives and the market, even though they are now adding in some religious and moral framing. 
 
Nevertheless, calling health care a human right and arguing that the U.S. government has an obligation to ensure affordable, accessible healthcare for all, social justice organizers are working to reclaim the health care discussion. They're reframing the call for health care as one for human dignity, justice and equality. 
 
Through the Lens of History: Human Rights in the United States 
 
The struggle to recognize health care as a human right is situated in a growing national movement aimed at using the human rights framework in working for socio-economic justice. The push for economic and social human rights is not new struggle in the United States. 
 
On the ground the push for these rights flourished amongst the poor, workers' and minority rights movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. Although not couched in a rights-based framework at the time, these were essentially the earliest rumblings of a socio-economic rights-based movement in the United States. The strikes of the 1920s and the struggles of the 1960s would go on to significantly impact the reform agenda of the political establishment. 
 

health care human right.jpg

Today as the inequality between the rich and poor widens domestically, there has been a surge of interest in using a rights-based approach in community organizing and advocacy. For the past several years, grassroots organizations across the country have worked to document and educate around issues such as heath care, living wage jobs, free higher education, and affordable housing through a human rights lens. 
 
While grassroots support for economic and social rights like health care is widespread, the principle exception still remains the U.S. leadership, whose attitude has varied considerably from one administration to another. In this sense, history paints a picture over the last half a century of a United States constantly reexamining the role of economic and social rights in the domestic and international arena. 
 

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Following World War II, the United States became one of the primary architects of the visions and mandates of the newly formed United Nations. The United States went on to play a key historical role in creating and developing human rights standards for economic and social rights. 
 
In addressing congress on January 9, 1941, President Franking D. Roosevelt gave his Four Freedoms speech, articulating the relationship between socio-economic rights and freedom. He declared "freedom from want" to be one of four essential liberties necessary for human security. 
 
Roosevelt's vision, encapsulated in his notion of a "Second Bill of Rights," would go on to influence the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Within the UNDHR, articles 23, 25 and 26 guarantee certain socio-economic human rights, particularly the right to housing, food, education, health care and a job at a living wage. 
 
Human rights advocates point out that although the United States still proclaims international leadership in human rights today, it often denies the application of international human rights law, especially economic and social rights, domestically. The legacy of harsh Cold War politics and a conservative backlash against social welfare safety net systems has made the fight for socio-economic human rights a difficult one in the United States. The United States also did not ratify most of its major human rights treaties until the 1990's, and it only did so with significant limitations that do not allow for their direct enforcement in U.S. courts. 
 
This ambivalence to international human rights law partially explains why human rights -- and socio-economic human rights in particular -- are virtually unrecognized in the United States. Activists also say that this is why the United States faces the highest rate of child poverty among industrialized nations -- with its 50 million people without health insurance, more than 36 million people suffering food insecurity, and millions of working families unable to afford basic needs such as housing and health care. 
 
Despite the U.S. government's refusal to ratify treaties such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, social justice movements in the United States still have a history of using human rights as one of their many tools in creating fundamental change. Using the human rights framework has allowed advocacy groups to build broad-based coalitions to further their goals and to base their claims on violations of international human rights law. Human rights became a teaching tool to give activists a better idea of why socio-economic rights were actual rights, and not just privileges. This type of organizing framework can be seen in the work being done to promote health care as a human right. 
 
As the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, a human rights group based in New York, explains on their Web site: 

Rising inequity in U.S. society and the failure to recognize economic and social rights play a significant role in the domestic health care crisis. Our fragmented health care financing system is rife with problems that lead to a wide range of human right to health abuses. The most visible is the 47 million people with no form of health insurance, the most distressing is the number of preventable deaths, estimated by some to reach 101,000 people a year, simply due to shortcomings in the way health care is organized in the United States.

This crisis persists despite available resources to protect the right to health, and despite record levels of health care spending in the United States.

 
Human rights groups like Amnesty International and NESRI say that the current health crisis presents an opportunity for bringing a human rights perspective to domestic health policy -- to shift the debate from health care as a commodity to health care as a human right. 
 
Closing the Gap 
 
The United States is the only industrialized country that does not recognize the human right to health, and it is the only industrialized nation to deny its citizens universal access to medical services. Fully one-third of the population lacks health insurance for at least part of the year. Of the 50 million who are completely uninsured, 80 percent work full or part-time. 
 

sick child.png

The crisis in health care access is most acutely felt in rural communities, poor communities and communities of color. Minorities and low-income populations experience serious disparities in rates of insurance and access to health care. A June report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that 40 percent of low-income people in the United States do not have health insurance. 
 
According to the report:

Low-income Americans and racial and ethnic minorities experience disproportionately higher rates of disease, fewer treatment options and reduced access to care. With unemployment on the rise, the disparities already apparent among these groups will continue to increase.

 
The disparities are so stark that whites in the U.S. are expected to live six years longer on average than African Americans. Human rights advocates point out that this gap can be largely attributed to the notion that health care is simply one commodity among others, a privilege for those who can afford it rather than a fundamental human right for all. 
 
Campus Progress argues that the health care reform campaign needs to reframe it's push as one that supports the right to health, instead of the economic efficiency of the health insurance market:

[T]here are questions that have yet to be raised, and they may be the most important ones to ask: Why would we continue a system in which the health needs of a human being are reducible to a commodity? How can we ensure that every American has equal access to a quality system that meets the fundamental needs for human health? How can we ensure that no matter what class, race, gender, or sexual orientation, our citizens will not be denied care or go bankrupt trying to pay for treatment of their illnesses?
...
A human rights approach focuses on the underlying purpose of the health care system. The core human rights demand is for outcomes consistent with internationally-recognized standards. Framing health care reform as a matter of right establishes a mechanism for government accountability and encourages public participation in the decisions that affect our lives and well-being.

 
Political observers are also weighing in on reasons why the health care debate is really an equal rights issue. In a Newsweek editorial this week, Jonathan Alter suggests that the Obama administration reframe health care reform as a civil rights bill, underscoring that health care reform must highlight 'the moral principle of nondiscrimination." 
 
Calling health care legislation the "most important civil-rights bill in a generation, though it is rarely framed that way," Alter goes on to underscore: 

Passage would end the shameful era in our nation's history when we discriminated against people for no other reason than that they were sick. A decade from now, we will look back in wonder that we once lived in a country where half of all personal bankruptcies were caused by illness, where Americans lacked the basic security of knowing that if they lost their jobs they wouldn't have to sell the house to pay for the medical treatments to keep them alive. We'll look back in wonder -- that is, if we pass the bill. 

 
 
(Images: 1 & 2. Rallies for the Right to Health Care, Photos © NESRI; 3. Eleanor Roosevelt holds the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Photo © United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.)
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re: Reframing the Health Care Debate: Is it too late for human r

"Rising inequity in U.S. society and the failure to recognize economic and social rights play a significant role in the domestic health care crisis." (from your article)
My son while attending college on a student loan had to get his appendex taken out. Emerengcy. He had $5,000 max insurance policy thru the school. Total cost operation = $20,000, Ins. paid $5,000 he owes rest, balance of $15,000. He is making deals with them as we speak, so far has gotten balance down to $3,500 he will have to pay out. We are lending him some money. Life is garenteed by our founding fathers, health care is not. My son has the right to health care it is not free. Nothing is life is free; one way or another we pay for the health of our nation. Your statement on "economic rights" makes me thing the next thing that will be demanded is a paycheck equal to the one my son may get after going to school the get his degree. He has worked hard, studided hard and gone into debbt to get an education so he can earn more money and acheive the American Dream. Do you want to take away his rights by demanding things you have not worked for? All people in this country have a right to health care, just have to get your appendex removed, it will happen weather you have money or not.

re: Reframing the Health Care Debate: Is it too late for human r

Is basic health care a human right? What about food, water, clothing, and shelter - perhaps these should be provided by a "single-payer" system as well? What about basic transportation and communication? Are we morally obligated to provide everyone a Lexus and an iPhone, or only a Honda and a Nokia - or will a bicycle and a calling-card suffice?

The assertion that basic health care is a human right is a slippery slope.

I think that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" means that the government should protect you from murder, foreign invasion, slavery, theft, rape, kidnapping, assault and other infringements against your person, property and Bill of Rights freedoms. That's about all the government should provide - protection.

re: Reframing the Health Care Debate: Is it too late for human r

Above commentaters, please direct yourselves to the United Nations Declaration for Human Rights, Article 25. The human right to health is right there, in the world's most sacred human rights declaration.

Also, take a look at Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the UK. They have better, cheaper health outcomes than the US (see this thorough study on the matter) and they all have nationalized health care.

So what are you arguing against? The basic idea of poor people having access to health care when you don't deem them "worthy" of it?

And no, John M., your son does not have a "right" to a high paycheck. You yourself admit that he is not making it on his own... you have had to help bail him out. What about students who don't have parents with extra money? If they must drop out to work off the bills, do they no longer "deserve" that higher paycheck and that better health?

re: Reframing the Health Care Debate: Is it too late for human r

No U.N. declaration is sacred, nor can such a declaration give a human being a "right" to health, since some will be born without health. All the care and scientific expertise in the world cannot give it to them. You may as well declare a "right" to athletic proficiency.

I am against using force to take honestly earned resources from one man - no matter how rich - and using them to provide health care, food, clothing, or any other goods for another man - no matter how poor.

When such a transfer takes place voluntarily, it is beautiful.

When such a transfer takes place by force - even by "democratic" force - it is very, very evil.

It leads to resentment in the provider, entitlement in the receiver, mediocrity in the society, oppression in the government, and black markets in the few surviving entrepeneurs. This has proven to be so over and over again, and has nothing to do with whom I deem worthy.

After life and liberty, property rights are among the most important of human rights.

If you do not have freedom to do what you wish with that for which you have labored, then you are a slave. If you deny that freedom to others, you promote slavery.

re: Reframing the Health Care Debate: Is it too late for human r

Czech, We are living in America, the United Nations should have no right to tell us what to do. Although we in America do have the right to health care, as the Supreme Court and many illegal alieans will attest to.
Who do you know that has not been taken care of thru our countries health care? We have the best system in the World; people come from all other countries to get help here. My mother in-law was without means of subsistence. The state of Ohio sent her to us, if we were willing to take her. We took her in, and found that she was mentally incompentant to survive in daily life with our help. We had to take her to a few different State supported homes. We found her a care facility that took her in and knew how to jump thru all the hoops to keep her and help her till she died approx. 20 some years later. She even at one time had to have her lower leg amputated.(National health-care)
ALSO "And no, John M., your son does not have a "right" to a high paycheck." (Your words) Sooo does that mean that your ideals can take that right from him? Seein how you want to quote the "United Nations Declaration for Human Rights" which America does not live by, Look at article 23!

re: Reframing the Health Care Debate: Is it too late for human r

The U.S. does not "deny its citizens universal access to medical services." It simply chooses not to provide said "universal access to medical services" to its citizens.

re: Reframing the Health Care Debate: Is it too late for human r

MKS YOU ARE RIGHT ON!! I wish I could write like you do.

re: Reframing the Health Care Debate: Is it too late for human r

Equation !

$1.042trillion (cost of reform) + $245bn (cost to reflect annual pay raise of docs) = $1.287bn (actual cost of reform).

$583bn ( the revenue package) + $80bn (doughnut hole) + $155bn (savings from docs) + $167bn (ending subsidies for insurers) + $277bn (ending medical fraud, a minimum of 3%) = $1.257bn + the reduced tax on the wealthiest = why not ? (except for magic pill, an outcome-based payment reform & IT effects and so forth)

In relation with medical fraud, please visit http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=111967435, you will be stunned ! Thankfully, in May 2009, the Obama administration announced a new task force made up of officials from the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services to work on health care fraud.

Thank You !

re: Reframing the Health Care Debate: Is it too late for human r

The other commenters on this thread seem unaware that the US is a signatory to the UNDHR and had a major hand in crafting it - for a reason. This document was created after the world, shocked by the atrocities of WW2, came together to establish minimum standards to ensure basic human rights for the world's citizens.

One's ability to life a healthy life should not depend on which country you are in. The UN doesn't "tell us what to do", though I assume your comment was facetious. It is the most significant declaration of human rights in the world's history, and personal greed on the part of some Americans doesn't invalidate that fact.

"I am against using force to take honestly earned resources from one man - no matter how rich - and using them to provide health care, food, clothing, or any other goods for another man - no matter how poor."

This comment assumes that wealth is always honestly obtained, when the truth is that it almost never is. Familial transfers of wealth which have nothing to do with individual merit, the use of money to encourage political corruption, the granting to massive corporations the same rights as a human, white privilege, male privilege and many other unfair advantages are what usually lead to excessive wealth accumulation. When policies are enacted to fight against excessive and unethical wealth accumulation, they are not "slavery". They are taking aim at the unethical and unjust means the wealthy have used to siphon off the nation's wealth for their own personal use. How ironic that anyone would call the wealthiest Americans "slaves", when it is actually the poor who are wage slaves, daily exploited by those who have more money.

It is telling that MKS deems property as one of the most sacred human rights. Property. Not education, nor health, nor civil rights, nor housing. Hir personal property.

John M: "Sooo does that mean that your ideals can take that right from him?"

I don't understand your question. I do not believe that individuals who come from a more privileged background deserve better opportunities and greater wealth, simply because of their privileged background, than people who grew up in the worst of circumstances. So no, your son's personal privilege does not give him a "right" to greater wealth accumulation. He has the same fundamental rights as any person, not more and not less.

I like how you use the term "ideals" as a pejorative.

re: Reframing the Health Care Debate: Is it too late for human r

“The other commenters on this thread seem unaware that the US is a signatory to the UNDHR and had a major hand in crafting it - for a reason. This document was created after the world, shocked by the atrocities of WW2, came together to establish minimum standards to ensure basic human rights for the world's citizens.” (Words of the Czech)
What a shame, the UN with our support, crafted such a great document and we cannot even come close to keeping it true to life. You must be aware of the atrocities those "Peace Keepers" perform on the very refugees they swear to protect. You may want Americans to conform to the rest of the world, but I say: Stay our of my life, and Do not Steal the money I, and my son will legally make, and give it to those that do not abide by the rules of Liberty we have today. Why do you want to mandate that the American people need to follow lock-step into the rules of: You must do this and You cannot do that. It seems you want more control; and that is not necessarily a success, just look at the U.N..

"This comment assumes that wealth is always honestly obtained, when the truth is that it almost never is." (Words of Czech)
No you do not know the truth: Your comment assumes that wealth is only money I disagree. In my opinion wealth comes from God and comes in many forms, for you to claim that it comes primarily from dishonest behavior makes me question; What view of the world you see?
“John M: "Sooo does that mean that your ideals can take that right from him?"I don't understand your question. I do not believe that individuals who come from a more privileged background deserve better opportunities and greater wealth, simply because of their privileged background, than people who grew up in the worst of circumstances. So no, your son's personal privilege does not give him a "right" to greater wealth accumulation. He has the same fundamental rights as any person, not more and not less.” (Words of Czech)
Never mind you have answered my question, It seems your view is to deny God and enforce it upon me.

re: Reframing the Health Care Debate: Is it too late for human r

So glad you brought up God! The inspiration for many of the beliefs I touch on above. For example:

James 5:1
Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.

Luke 6:35
And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? for sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again.

Matthew 19:21
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.

Matthew 19:24
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

Job 20:15
He hath swallowed down riches, and he shall vomit them up again: God shall cast them out of his belly.

Job 36:19
Will [God] esteem thy riches? no, not gold, nor all the forces of strength.

Psalm 9:17
[T]he needy shall not always be forgotten: the expectation of the poor shall not perish for ever.

Psalm 39:6
Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro:
He bustles about, but only in vain;
he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it.

Psalm 72:4
He will defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
he will crush the oppressor.

Proverbs 23:5
[R]iches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away as an eagle toward heaven.

Proverbs 30:14
There is a generation, whose teeth are as swords, and their jaw teeth as knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, and the needy from among men.

Ecclesiastes 5:12
The sleep of a laborer is sweet,
whether he eats little or much,
but the abundance of a rich man
permits him no sleep.

James 2:6
Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?

re: Reframing the Health Care Debate: Is it too late for human r

I am concerned about our children and the elderly who are being infected with a disease that will kill more Americans' than AIDS. My father died of the acceptable standards of health care in Tennessee and part of his death was due to the quality care and getting MRSA is okay. The very health care system we depend on to keep us safe and healthy is infecting our communities but it's a okay. http://www.wisecountyissues.com/?p=62 How many more innocent people does it take to die before the people who do something about horrific preventable deaths do something ? I know I've been trying to get answers for five years now but the government is good at giving excuses, passing you on to someone else or ignoring you.

re: Reframing the Health Care Debate: Is it too late for human r

Czech, Lets push the “Reset Button” on this issue and see what comes up.
We are discussing on an article on Human Rights. You say health care insurance is a human right, and I say it is not. You say America should supply health care like all of the other countries of the world, I say we should not. You say poor people do not have access to health care, I say they do, even “Illegal Aliens” have that right. You say most wealth is achieved dishonestly, I say it is not. You publish scripture to support these issues; I say God, not government, is to be the judge in matters of human behavior as long as it does not affect the Liberty of others. Replacing God with government does not work, just look at the past ideologies that tried it, they have failed.
P.S. Most of the scripture verses you send refer to the personal Love of Wealth that the people have accumulated is a sin, I agree with that.

“There are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”
James Madison, speech to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 16, 1788

re: Reframing the Health Care Debate: Is it too late for human r

tmullins, The mother in law I spoke of above died of a form of “Staphylocoloccus”, she was in government care. We complained to a government formed investigative unit about some of the issues involved in her death, and the government sponsored home was investigated, but no real results were achieved. We should have contacted one of those High Dollar Attorneys seein how our Gooberment fears them.

Words of Howard Dean:8/26/09
“The reason tort reform is not in the [health care] bill is because the people who wrote it did not want to take on the trial lawyers in addition to everybody else they were taking on. And that’s the plain and simple truth,”. http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/blogs/beltway-confidential/Dean-says-Obamacare-authors-dont-want-to-challenge-trial-lawyers-55140567.html?c=y