KERNS: Healthcare: A human right and a public solution



Bryan Kerns

I have a friend who carries around a binder with this sentence written in large letters on the front: “Health care is a human right.” No doubt, she supports an individual mandate, a public program to ensure it and perhaps even a single-payer option. However, none of these, save the individual mandate, appears even the least bit politically tenable given the current intractability Congress is displaying.

Even the Republicans of yore, led by no less than Richard Nixon, would see the current impasse as a major failing on the part of the government. The late Senator Ted Kennedy tried to broker a deal with Nixon on universal health care in the early 1970s before Watergate, but eventually rejected Nixon’s offer – a deal that would have been far more progressive than anything likely to reach the president’s desk now.

A public option is absolutely imperative for health care reform to succeed. Systemic change requires bold action, especially when the crisis threatens to undermine the entire U.S. economy as costs grow and drag companies under. No less a conservative figure, Bill O’Reilly supported a public option in a recent segment on his show, “The O’Reilly Factor.” He said, “I want, not personally for me, but for working Americans, to have a option, that if they don’t like their health insurance, if it’s too expensive, they can’t afford it, if the government can cobble together a cheaper insurance policy that gives the same benefits, I see that as a plus for the folks.”

O’Reilly has a point. According to the Commonwealth Fund, a nonpartisan group, a public insurance option similar to Medicare would reduce health care costs by about $2 trillion over 11 years, cut premiums by an average of 20 percent, and enroll 105 million people.

A bill without a public option currently undergoing study by the Senate Finance Committee would, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office, save $49 billion over ten years and reduce the deficit. Bending the cost curve downward is a crucial component to any reform.

In an influential essay written for The New Yorker in June, surgeon Atul Gawande argues that perverse incentives for physicians to order test after test with each new piece of medical technology available have sent the costs of health care skyrocketing and created conditions in which physicians are able to personally profit from charging insurance companies massive fees for these tests and procedures, ultimately leading to ineffective care and uncontrollable costs.

In another essay written for The Atlantic, a business executive outlines the path his father took through the hospital to his ultimate death, decrying the inefficiencies of a medical system where the patient is not the customer, but the insurance company is.

He proffers a theory that argues for a consumer-based system, whereby the employer-based system is eliminated and each individual is required to carry health insurance through a government program, but costs are paid for directly by the consumer. To support his proposal, the writer uses yet another Gawande essay about a hospital that simply improved its cleanliness and quality control practices and ended up reducing infection and ultimately lives.

It’s becoming more and more clear as each day goes by that the system is broken, that employer-based health care has failed, that costs are out of control and that reform is badly needed.

A public option is the first step on the road to comprehensive reform. A total revision of the system to something consumer-driven, where health professionals are accountable to the patient and not the mindless bureaucracy of a profit-driven system, is needed.

These are people’s lives we’re talking about, and natural death shouldn’t come at the hands of a hospital-borne infection. Health care is a human right, even if the politics aren’t there to align with that. This isn’t just a question of government involvement in our lives; it’s a fundamental moral issue that we ignore at our own peril.


Bryan Kerns is a junior honors and humanities major from Drexel Hill, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].