Is Health Care a Right or a Privilege?

tiles representing different healthcare specialities

Is access to health care a right that should be shared by all people regardless of socioeconomic status? Or is it a privilege that belongs to those who can afford to pay? Views on that seem to depend a lot on where people live.

Growing up in Canada, all I ever knew was a public healthcare system. Here, there’s no charge to see a doctor or to be treated in a hospital. Canadians don’t have universal access to all health services (for example, psychotherapy isn’t covered, and there’s no national pharmacare program), but basic health care is available to all.

In stark contrast is the system (or lack of system, more like it) in the United States. The health care you can access is dependent on the money/insurance you have. There are Medicare/Medicaid programs for people with disabilities and/or those who are low income, but, from what I’ve heard, those are far from perfect.

Distrust of government

It seems like the U.S. has a longstanding distrust of government, presumably dating back to the American Revolution, which has a significant influence on people’s attitudes toward health care. It goes further than that, though; an article on The Federalist website argues that guns are a way for citizens to protect themselves from the government.

In Canada, we may not entirely trust our politicians, but we’re not planning trips across the border to get a few AR-15s to take down Justin Trudeau and his fabulous hair. Anyway, I digress.

Some arguments for health care as privilege

I came across a forum on in which people posted their views on this topic. The majority of people expressed their belief that health care is a privilege, and here are some of their answers:

“Healthcare is a privilege, Not a right. Nowhere in the constitution does it say anyone has a right to healthcare… It’s not societies or governments responsibility to provide it for you.”

“It seems to me that the want for better health care for your family is a good incentive to work hard, Innovate, And succeed in life – if health care is right provided by government then the incentives for personal achievement will become diminished by some amount.”

“Health care is a privilege because the government should not get involved in private business. The government does not get involved in car insurance or home insurance so why fiddle with health care. We are a free market country and we need to stay a free market country.”

The idea of protection from government

A story in the New Yorker raises the interesting point that some people view rights as protections from government rather than protections provided by government. The article also mentioned that some people resent Medicaid recipients, as they don’t like the notion of subsidizing someone else.

This fascinates me on a few levels. If I had to choose between trusting government or insurance companies, I’d pick government hands down any day of the week.

And in terms of subsidizing others, isn’t that essentially what insurance boils down to? A bunch of people pay into it, but not everyone needs it, and actuaries crunch the numbers to decide how much people have to pay in for everything to even itself out (and don’t forget putting profit into the insurance company’s pocket).

I would certainly rather pay tax dollars towards public health care than massive insurance premiums to large corporations, whose fundamental purpose in a free market economy is to generate as much profit as they can.

Valuing human health

The idea that health care is a privilege and a service like any other feels very foreign and unpalatable to me. My personal belief, based on my values, is that even if access to health care isn’t a constitutional right, society has a moral obligation to ensure that all of our citizens are able to access health care when they need it.

If all citizens are to have equal, unalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as laid out in the American Declaration of Independence, restricting health care access to those with means knocks out all three of these elements. I fail to see anything liberating about people paying massive insurance premiums or going bankrupt because they happen to get sick and either don’t have insurance or their insurance won’t cover them.

If our society values universal access to education for children, as well as police and fire services, I’m not sure why health care should be any different. I prefer to live in a country where universal access is a moral imperative and supporting one another is seen as a good thing rather than a burden. All people deserve to have their basic needs met, regardless of the disadvantages they face. The fact that so many people seem so adamant that this should not be the case is frightening to me.

What are your thoughts?

Social justice and equality - graphic of Earth surrounded by diverse children

The Social Justice & Equality page has info and resources on a wide variety of social issues.

57 thoughts on “Is Health Care a Right or a Privilege?”

  1. The three excerpts you put in your post are exactly how a lot of Americans think about universal healthcare. I think a lot of it comes from an individualistic mentality and the fact that some jobs provide you with health insurance. If somebody doesn’t work, they don’t get health insurance. If you don’t work, you’re seen as lazy and mooching off working people’s tax dollars.
    A lot of Americans don’t like getting help from others, they want to do everything themselves. So if they see others asking for help (even if they really need it), they’re looked down upon. I’ve heard many times that universal healthcare will make people lazy because then they don’t have to work for health insurance. It doesn’t make sense to me.
    Sorry this is such a long comment. I believe healthcare is a right so I truly envy what Canada and the UK have.

  2. Healthcare should be universal like 🇨🇦 Canada. We have a horrendous system regards to the elderly. The insurance companies plus hospital and the pharmaceutical companies are the controlling icons that have made Healthcare. To turn it universal would mean these companies would lose money and they are going to do everything in their power to retain that.

  3. Ashley Leia, I agree with your last comment. The problem with declaring that health care is a right is that it automatically implies that it should be free.

  4. I suppose it depends where you live and what the rules are. Here in the UK we pay for our NHS through our taxes and national insurance contributions so healthcare is a right.

  5. My answer to this question is that healthcare is neither a right or a privilege, it is a human need. Food is neither a right or a privilege, yet tax money is used to help those who are not privileged. I have many more thoughts on this topic but this was my first instinct.

Leave a Reply