Health Care Reform: Back to Human Rights Basics

By Anja Rudiger for Amnesty International

In a turbulent week in U.S. politics that saw the president abandoning his promise of universal health insurance and the Supreme Court elevating corporate spending in elections to a human right – protected as free speech in the same way as human speech – human rights activists should take solace in the fact that giving up pretensions can be the first step to real change.

This is particularly important for human right to health care activists who have long been dismayed with market-based health care proposals that blatantly fail to satisfy basic human rights standards. There was perhaps only one policy measure the U.S. needed even less than the opening of floodgates for vast new corporate political spending, and that was a health “reform” bill funneling millions of new customers to the for-profit insurance industry and billions in subsidies into the coffers of the…wait for it…very same industry. If this bill, in its Senate and House versions, now appears threatened by the Democrats’ loss of one Massachusetts Senate seat, a new opportunity has emerged to call for simple but meaningful health reform measures based on human rights.

Many activists and advocacy organizations, including Amnesty, have consistently pointed to the fundamental flaw underlying the approach adopted by health reformers in DC, and urged them to treat health care as a human right, not a commodity. Yet the reform bills failed to meet the human rights principles of universality, equity, and accountability. Rather than guaranteeing universal health care, they excluded many millions of people from access to coverage and care. Instead of ensuring that care would be available for those who need it, the bills made access for most people contingent on their ability to purchase a private insurance plan. And rather than holding the private sector accountable for protecting the right to health, the bills perpetuated the industry’s focus on their bottom line.

The rapidly faltering popularity of this market-based approach creates a new opening for demanding simple but systemic policy changes that move the U.S. system toward treating health care as a public good shared equitably by all. A Medicare-like public health insurance program for everyone in the U.S. could guarantee progressively financed, publicly accountable, and fiscally sustainable universal coverage. Therefore, building on the success of Medicare and expanding it to more and more people below the age of 65 can be a key component of a rights-based reform strategy. It is equally important to secure and expand the health rights of poor and low-income people through guaranteed public coverage provided by Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Without a progressive expansion of publicly financed and administered health care, it will remain virtually impossible to ensure that people’s health needs are prioritized over market incentives to deny access to care.

A significant expansion of Medicare and Medicaid at the federal level would be complementary to the many state-based efforts for advancing the human right to health care. Strong grassroots campaigns in states such as Vermont, California, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota have every chance of succeeding in establishing some form of universal, publicly funded health insurance system without federal action (although some help in the form of removing administrative hurdles would surely be welcomed). Activists are right not to wait until their representatives in DC show enough spine to stand up for people’s health. Yet with even more corporate political influence on the horizon, thanks to the Supreme Court, now may be a good time to hold our representatives accountable for protecting the human right to health care.


  1. John Barker on January 23, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    I wonder why it never seems to occur to anyone that the concept of a corporation as an individual is preposterous or equally preposterous that our founding fathers had corporations as individuals with human rights in mind when they wrote “we the people”?

    It all began with the income tax. Our politicians in their never ending search for smoke and mirror ways of taxation that convince people that they are not being taxed came upon the idea that corporate incomes should be taxed but only individual incomes can be taxed in the part of the constitution that deals with income tax so the supreme court found that corporations could be recognized as “individuals”. Unfortunately, the idea utterly failed because what income taxes corporations cannot avoid they pass on to consumers. It can be looked upon as a kind of value added tax imposed on unsuspecting Americans by corporations and not by government.

    Now the ludicrous concept of corporations as individuals has been expanded to “human rights” in the form of corporate free speech. I think that human rights activists should challenge the concept of a corporation is a “individual” whether it be for failed taxation purposes or free speech rights. Never in their wildest dreams did our founding fathers envision what has happened.

    • John Barker on January 24, 2010 at 2:47 pm

      After checking into this topic more on Wikipedia, I am apparently off base. There has been a fairly long history of corporate legal personhood and there are good reasons for the concept of legal corporate personhood. Initially, corporations had five legal rights that made good sense such as the right to own property, sign contracts, sue or be sued, hire employees and self governance. They can’t vote or hold public office but as things are, in my opinion, their ability to influence elections and politicians amounts to de facto holding office and should be limited. Legal personhood doesn’t necessarily include free speech that a natural person has under the constitution.

  2. Dalan on January 24, 2010 at 2:50 am

    “The rapidly faltering popularity of this market-based approach” put a Republican in Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in one of the most progressive states in the nation. Please keep deluding yourselves…it will make 2010 easier for conservatives.