Saturday, October 10, 2009

Why ISN'T healthcare a human right?

When I interviewed Dr. Sara Bhattacharji earlier this year, the great American health care battles had not begun in earnest and ‘health care as a human right’ was still an unfamiliar notion. Since then, I have tried to understand what it is that expectations of health care tell us about the obligations of a government to its citizens. Why, I asked, does our government not take for granted that its citizens are entitled to health care? Why is there so much argument about this fundamental question? Why is there any argument at all? I concluded that its people are seen as expense items on this country’s balance sheet. Quite simply, people cost too much.

I’ve just returned from Berlin where I learned that, along with education and an unconditional right to a basic living income, the right, that is, to live as a social being, healthcare is considered a mandatory necessity and premiums are determined by income.

What is the basis for such policies, I asked some German friends? Perhaps, one proposed, it originates in the feudal lords who considered it a matter of pride to look after their serfs and staff in a decent manner. More definitively though, we have to hand it to Otto von Bismarck. In 1883, in the first of many acts of social legislation, he was able to pass the Health Insurance Bill, followed by Accident Insurance and Old Age and Disability Bills. “That’s why we don’t have homelessness or people living in cars in Germany,” I was told by Denise Wade, who lives in Munich and who has experienced both German and US healthcare. “Everyone’s considered a valuable human being, she continued, reminding me that there’s no death penalty in the European Union. These programs she told, me in her words, “help create and maintain stability, the social tapestry is stronger and lasts longer. It’s the difference between capitalism and social democracy,” she concluded, pointing out that Marx and Lenin were alive when Bismarck was Chancellor.

We didn’t discuss other ways in which Germany has demonstrated the value it places on human life but please do rest assured that I don’t need to be reminded of post-Bismarck Germany, of the Third Reich and whatever its healthcare policies were.

Still puzzled by the moral vacuum at the heart of the American healthcare debate, I returned to the Tidings program broadcast in May of this year. Please listen or, if you’d rather read about it, you can return to the rest of the blog posting...

Why isn’t healthcare a human right? is also available as a podcast. In the radio series Tidings from Hazel Kahan, it is produced by Tony Ernst to be broadcast on WPKN on October 14, 2009. Tidings can now be heard streaming live on the second Wednesday of every month at 12.30 pm EST on, broadcasting from 89.5 Bridgeport, CT and WPKM 88.7 Montauk, NY. WPKN is an entirely listener-supported community radio station. Hazel Kahan is also the creator of leafages.