09/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Moral Imperative: Health Care as an American Right

In recent days, pundits have turned to discussing health care as an American right. After all, we see this in other countries. When asked by Bill Maher on his show the other day, Bill Moyers said, "We're all in the same boat", and said how could he be provided an operation in a hospital, yet floors away someone else less fortunate could not have the same procedure because he couldn't pay for it. During the celebration of life on the passing of Teddy Kennedy at the Kennedy Library on August 28, we heard John Kerry state that health care is a right and that true health care reform will be passed this year. On the campaign trail against Senator McCain in Nashville, Tennessee last fall, President Obama said the same thing (they were both asked whether health care was a right, privilege, or responsibility and Obama said without hesitation, a right). Even Teddy Kennedy himself bellowed out at the August, 2008 Democratic convention when introducing then candidate Obama that health care is a right of all Americans. And a month earlier, this writer said in a column, "All Americans should be provided health care as a matter of a new social policy" ("Is It Time for Universal Health Coverage", Clinical Endocrinology News(p.38). A month later, I said in a published article, "Everyone has a right to healthcare".

We are rounding the bend and coming full circle as the Congress is to return from its August recess and once more tackles the debate for real health care reform. Many have asked whether Kennedy's passing will have an impact on resolving the impasse. I doubt it. His oratory was powerful; make no mistake about it. But his real skill was in the art of compromise; he would sooner negotiate 75% of what he wanted rather than lose everything. It seems those days are long since passed. From outside the beltway as I am, the landscape is much more partisan, and the fight over major legislation is not merit-based, but predicated on what it takes to win the next election. We put President Obama in office to make a change -- a change in our lives -- what more of a change can there be but to ensure that every American, including those seeking citizenship in earnest, can afford and access health care.

So, is health care a right? Certainly, not in a constitutional sense, though Thomas Jefferson spoke of in(un)alienable rights inclusive of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But there are a lot of rights that have been created over the decades of our history not found in the precise documents crafted by our Founding Fathers. Others of my colleagues have said health care should be viewed like a service, you know, like the state or municipally-generated electricity or gas that lights and heats our homes, or the publicly financed transportation systems that take us to work each day. There is no moral decision that need be taken with any such service. But however we look at health care, one thing is certain: health care is universal to each and every human being in this country, regardless of power, position, gender, race or ethnicity. That means those we voted into office to do the people's business have no more access to it than those who are at the poverty level. That also means those of our elected officials who will vote on health care reform should not be able to afford and access it any more than anyone else. Health care is the common equalizer (without our health we cannot do anything) among us all -- just like the most powerful and wealthy have no advantage over anyone else when going into a voting booth to vote: we all get just one vote. Similarly, the patient Bill Moyers referred to with Bill Maher should not be deprived of his surgery for a life full of health any more than, well, Bill Moyers . . . or, for that matter, each and every Member of Congress. When it comes to health care, elected officials are entitled to nothing more than that to which the ordinary American would be entitled.

Maybe Kennedy's legacy will not be shaped by his absence from the legislative process (he will be sorely missed certainly), or his style and presence in the well of the Senate and in the halls of Congress he walked so often, but in his being the symbol of achieving once and for all the moral imperative - - - that health care is a right for us all, and without its reform now, it will cease to exist.