By Atul Gawande
The New Yorker, October 2, 2017
Is health care a right? The United States remains the only developed country in the world unable to come to agreement on an answer. Earlier this year, I was visiting Athens, Ohio, the town in the Appalachian foothills where I grew up. The battle over whether to repeal, replace, or repair the Affordable Care Act raged then, as it continues to rage now. So I began asking people whether they thought that health care was a right.
“My personal opinion is that anytime the government steps in and says, ‘You must do this,’ it’s overstepping its boundaries,” Joe said. “A father, mother, two kids working their asses off—they’re making minimum wage and are barely getting by—I have no problem helping them. If I have someone who’s spent his whole life a drunk and a wastrel, no, I have no desire to help. That’s just the basics.”
Such feelings are widely shared. They’re what brought the country within a single vote of repealing major parts of President Obama’s expansion of health-care coverage. Some people see rights as protections provided by government. But others, like the Duttons, see rights as protections from government.
People don’t think about their water, Tim said, but we can’t live without it. It is not a luxury; it’s a necessity of human existence. An essential function of government, therefore, is to insure that people have clean water. And that’s the way he sees health care. Joe wanted government to step back; Tim wanted government to step up. The divide seemed unbridgeable. Yet the concerns that came with each viewpoint were understandable, and I wondered if there were places where those concerns might come together.
Monna considered herself a conservative. The notion of health care as a right struck her as another way of undermining work and responsibility: “Would I love to have health insurance provided to me and be able to stay home?” Of course, she said. “But I guess I’m going to be honest and tell you that I’m old school, and I’m not really good at accepting anything I don’t work for.”
She could quit her job and get Medicaid free, she pointed out, just as some of her neighbors had. “They have a card that comes in the mail, and they get everything they need!” she said. “Where does it end? I mean, how much responsibility do tax-paying people like me have? How much is too much?” She went on, “I understand that there’s going to be a percentage of the population that we are going to have to provide for.” When she was a young mother with two children and no home, she’d had to fall back on welfare and Medicaid for three months. Her stepson, Eric, had been on Medicaid and Social Security Disability Insurance before he died. Her eighty-three-year-old mother, who has dementia and requires twenty-four-hour care, was also on Medicaid. “If you’re disabled, if you’re mentally ill, fine, I get it,” Monna said. “But I know so many folks on Medicaid that just don’t work. They’re lazy.” Like the Duttons, she felt that those people didn’t deserve what they were getting.
But then we talked about Medicare, which provided much of her husband’s health care and would one day provide hers. That was different, Monna told me. Liberals often say that conservative voters who oppose government-guaranteed health care and yet support Medicare are either hypocrites or dunces. But Monna, like almost everyone I spoke to, understood perfectly well what Medicare was and was glad to have it. I asked her what made it different.
“We all pay in for that,” she pointed out, “and we all benefit.” That made all the difference in the world. From the moment we earn an income, we all contribute to Medicare, and, in return, when we reach sixty-five we can all count on it, regardless of our circumstances. There is genuine reciprocity. You don’t know whether you’ll need more health care than you pay for or less. Her husband thus far has needed much less than he’s paid for. Others need more. But we all get the same deal, and, she felt, that’s what makes it O.K.
“I believe one hundred per cent that Medicare needs to exist the way it does,” she said. This was how almost everyone I spoke to saw it. To them, Medicare was less about a universal right than about a universal agreement on how much we give and how much we get.
Understanding this seems key to breaking the current political impasse. The deal we each get on health care has a profound impact on our lives—on our savings, on our well-being, on our life expectancy. In the American health-care system, however, different people get astonishingly different deals. That disparity is having a corrosive effect on how we view our country, our government, and one another.
Arnold, with his code of self-reliance, had eliminated nearly all sources of insecurity from his life. But here was one that was beyond his control. “The biggest worry I have would be some sort of health-care need,” he said. A serious medical issue would cost him his income. As an independent contractor, he isn’t eligible for unemployment benefits. And, having passed the age of fifty, he was just waiting for some health problem to happen.
So did he feel that he had a right to health care? No. “I never thought about it as a matter of rights,” he said. “A lot of these things we think are rights, we actually end up paying for.” He thinks that the left typically plays down the reality of the costs, which drives him crazy. But the right typically plays down the reality of the needs, which drives him crazy, too.
In his view, everyone has certain needs that neither self-reliance nor the free market can meet. He can fix his house, but he needs the help of others if it catches fire. He can keep his car running, but he needs the help of others to pave and maintain the roads. And, whatever he does to look after himself, he will eventually need the help of others for his medical care.
“I think the goal should be security,” he said of health care. “Not just financial security but mental security—knowing that, no matter how bad things get, this shouldn’t be what you worry about. We don’t worry about the Fire Department, or the police. We don’t worry about the roads we travel on. And it’s not, like, ‘Here’s the traffic lane for the ones who did well and saved money, and you poor people, you have to drive over here.’ ” He went on, “Somebody I know said to me, ‘If we give everybody health care, it’ll be abused.’ I told her that’s a risk we take. The roads are abused. A lot of things are abused. It’s part of the deal.”
As he saw it, government existed to provide basic services like trash pickup, a sewer system, roadways, police and fire protection, schools, and health care. Do people have a right to trash pickup? It seemed odd to say so, and largely irrelevant. The key point was that these necessities can be provided only through collective effort and shared costs. When people get very different deals on these things, the pact breaks down. And that’s what has happened with American health care.
We relied on government to establish a system of compulsory public education, infrastructure for everything from running water to the electric grid, and old-age pensions, along with tax systems to pay for it all. As in other countries, these programs were designed to be universal. For the most part, we didn’t divide families between those who qualified and those who didn’t, between participants and patrons. This inclusiveness is likely a major reason that these policies have garnered such enduring support.
Health care has been the cavernous exception.
To win passage, the A.C.A. postponed reckoning with our generations-old error of yoking health care to our jobs—an error that has made it disastrously difficult to discipline costs and insure quality, while severing care from our foundational agreement that, when it comes to the most basic needs and burdens of life and liberty, all lives have equal worth. The prospects and costs for health care in America still vary wildly, and incomprehensibly, according to your job, your state, your age, your income, your marital status, your gender, and your medical history, not to mention your ability to read fine print.
Few want the system we have, but many fear losing what we’ve got. And we disagree profoundly about where we want to go. Do we want a single, nationwide payer of care (Medicare for all), each state to have its own payer of care (Medicaid for all), a nationwide marketplace where we all choose among a selection of health plans (Healthcare.gov for all), or personal accounts that we can use to pay directly for health care (Health Savings Accounts for all)?
What we agree on, broadly, is that the rules should apply to everyone. But we’ve yet to put this moral principle into practice.
Two sets of values are in tension. We want to reward work, ingenuity, self-reliance. And we want to protect the weak and the vulnerable—not least because, over time, we all become the weak and vulnerable, unable to get by without the help of others. Finding the balance is not a matter of achieving policy perfection; whatever program we devise, some people will put in more and some will take out more. Progress ultimately depends on whether we can build and sustain the belief that collective action genuinely results in collective benefit. No policy will be possible otherwise.
By Don McCanne, M.D.
Years ago, here in conservative Orange County, I learned not to ask audiences whether they believed health care is a right. The “tis so,” “tis not” that followed was not productive. Nevertheless, the question frequently came up during Q&A, with the same result.
Atul Gawande’s long article is interesting because conservatives he interviewed used different framing to express the concept that people should have health care when they need it, without deeming it to be a right. Health care should be a basic service like trash pickup, water, a sewer system, roadways, police and fire protection, and schools. We don’t speak of a right to trash pickup, and we don’t need to anger others by getting into a cat fight over a “right” to health care.
It is no wonder that we are beginning to see conservatives supporting single payer, not as a right but as a necessity.
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