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?

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

    1. Renard Moreau, I agree with your point on a fundamental level. The problem is that if you declare health care a right, which in the strictest sense it is not, that could lead to abuses and overloads of various medical facilities.

  1. Being on medicare/horizon blue cross blue shield insurance, is not only a burden… I still can’t afford to go to physical therapy, I can only afford to see my psychiatrist/therapist every other month because of the cost, and Lord forbid I need to see another doctor in the same month, I have to forfeit food to live on.
    US Healthcare system is ****** up! It is the furthest thing from a privledge.

      1. Nothing here in the GREAT US of A is free. Hell, it cost $7 for 3lb bag of mandarin oranges. REALLY!?!?
        Again, because of my medications and the cost of seeing just those two doctors, I’m scrounging for change at the end of the month.
        The system has been broken for so damn long, and no one can fix it. I think it’s because no one in congress wants to fix it. I’d love to see anyone of our people in office live like the normal everyday people for one month based on what disability and insurance cost. Thwy wouldn’t make it through one week!

  2. Despite being American, I have always believed that health care is a right. Everyone has a right to food, shelter, and the care they need to be healthy. As far as I’m concerned, that should include access to mental health care and medication as well.

    Our country right now does not provide those things to people who don’t have them, for the most part. Instead, food pantries and charities try to address food shortages. The number of homeless people on our streets is appalling; shelters can’t begin to address that issue. And Medicare and Medicaid help, but are insufficient and not available to everyone who needs them. These are things I strongly want to see changed–and I’m not the only one. (I want people to understand there is a lot of variability in Americans’ viewpoints.)

    Some things to note: most of the people who access food banks are actually employed, so it’s not a matter of people not making an effort. Also, some of the people who insist that they don’t want to subsidize other people’s health care will give generously to their churches or to local charities (I know this because I have some family members who are like this). In other words, it’s a very complicated issue, not a question of lazy/hard-working or stingy/generous.

    Thanks for your post.

    1. Thanks for your comments. It feels like there is something fundamentally wrong when wealthy countries can’t manage to take care of those in need.

      1. I would see it as a right to healthcare. I am lucky, as it doesn’t cost to see my doctor, or a nurse at my doctor’s surgery.
        If I had to have a hospital appointment, again it is free.
        If I have an accident and have to attend A & E, then that’s free.
        But not all things are free as they used to be. Like for example, some years ago, when I had problems with my right foot, I seen the physiotherapist, was given exercises and experimented with temporary insoles until a proper insole was made.
        Years later, when this insole no longer worked and the foot pain was there, I got referred to a surgeon, who agreed it was time for an operation. All free.

        A year ago, when I had pain in that foot again, I discovered unless I was diabetic, or had rehumatoid arthritis, I would not get referred. Instead, I would have to take myself to a foot specialist. I never took myself there, as I had no money to take myself to something like that. Luckily, it cleared up on it’s own.

        This year, foot pain in other foot, but again, sorted it out myself and a lot of wishful thinking in hoping it clears up itself, because I am no situation to take myself to a foot specialist. It’s not fully right, but much better than it was to not affect me going out walking as normal now, with caution.

        Other thing that is not available for me now on the NHS is hayfever medication. So I, like anyone else affected will have to buy it ourselves. Now I know it’s cheaper over the counter than prescription, but when you get help with prescription, to get your medication for free, or reduced cost, it then obviously works out cheaper. But this is not an option now, with hayfever medication not being available via NHS now and instead you have to buy it yourself.

          1. It would be when first you pay to see them, then afterwards fitted with insoles. Then if those insoles did not work, paying for another different insole and seeing them again the process.

  3. I think this is very much a USA point of view. I think even fairly fiscally conservative people in other Western countries accept healthcare as a public good that should be paid for in some way by the state, even if they debate the mechanism by which it should be provided. When Margaret Thatcher had to have surgery, she went on the NHS and made a big thing about, despite privatising every other nationalised industry. It’s only in the US that there’s a weird assumption that only communists would support free healthcare. It’s probably largely a “fear of Big Government” thing going back to 1776, but weirdly the American right accepts universal free education, just not healthcare, so that might only be a partial answer.

    (Although I have to say, where you say “If I had to choose between trusting government or trusting insurance companies or other for-profit businesses, I would pick government hands down”, I don’t think I would trust any of them…)

    1. The Americans have some very odd notions about communism.
      If I lived in the U.K. I wouldn’t have any trust in the whole government gong show either.

  4. Hi… When you say you would rather trust a government than a corporation. Think of governments like North Korea. I think a lot of Americans think any income redistribution is the first paving stone on the road to a quasi Marxist state.

    I live in the U.K. and the NHS is great in one way (it always there) but terrible in others (its sort of Stalinist in structure and offers bog standard service).

    I don’t know?

    1. I guess I should qualify that I would rather trust a democratic government in a country with free elections.
      And certainly there’s always room for improvement in any health care system, but for me at least the fundamental building block should be universal access.

  5. This is a very controversial subject. Why do we expect the government to take care of us when we work to provide for ourselves? On the other hand, some companies don’t provide adequate insurance or cover certain things. It’s a catch 22. The Medicare system is broken, that’s for sure, yet I’m thankful for folks like my dad who are retired and only have Medicare to help pay for his medicine and appointments (which at almost 85 there’s a lot!) Part of the reason we work in America is to be able to HAVE insurance, yes we have to pay for it, but I don’t see how that is the government’s problem. You should do for yourself until you are unable to or no longer working in my opinion. Unfortunately, now that I’m no longer working at a job full time, we only have my husband’s insurance which is crappy, but still better than nothing!

  6. There is also the element that certain areas of medicine are pseudoscientific and people fare better in countries where its not available. One example would be psychiatry where the research is utterly bought by the drugs companies.

      1. So you don’t think drug companies manipulate research to promote medication based solutions to mental illness rather than other treatments which are less easy to export and monetise (such as Soteria houses or Open Dialogue in Finland). I also have a so called ‘mental illness’. I accept you might think differently. There are a lot of people out there who question psychiatry. 🙂

  7. Majority of Americans in poverty are afraid to even take the ambulance when there’s an emergency. That really shows something. The ride itself is around $2000 on your bill.

  8. I believe it should be a right for all people, but unfortunately everyone in the US doesn’t feel that way. Healthcare here is expensive in addition to the medications, and the costs increase each year.

  9. I read a social media post a few days ago from the mother of a child with Charge Syndrome (which is what my son was diagnosed with). She took her little one in for a procedure, and while waiting on the doctor, one of the nurses made a comment about how expensive the equipment was and how tax payers shouldn’t be responsible for taking care of other people by means of medicaid. She asked him if he thinks her child was worth the cost, and he replied No. How selfish and inconsiderate can one be?!

  10. To me, healthcare should be a right.

    And it doesn’t have to be ONLY “pay tons of money” OR “it’s all free!” My country charges copays for the public health system so it isn’t free (discouraging people who’ll see a doctor for every little thing), but it isn’t backbreakingly expensive. Citizens who get referred appropriately thru public health get a 50% subsidy.

    There’s many other problems with the system (despite it being universal healthcare and highly ranked in the world) affecting accessibility, cost and lack of social safety nets which I won’t get into here, but people don’t go bankrupt from medical debt unlike in the USA.

    1. That’s such a good point. No healthcare system is perfect, but a system is perfect, but it should never result in people having to declare bankruptcy.

  11. We have basic rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Unless they chucked the entire ideals of the Declaration of Independence in the Constitution, the, yes, we should have a right to healthcare, because it is necessary for health and quality of life. And, my blood boils and I get very salty at anyone who says otherwise. That the U.S. is a repugnant backwater for not offering basic healthcare to all affordably is one of those “if you disagree, you know where the unfollow button – or the door (and please let it hit you on the way out!) – is” issues for me!

  12. The healthcare access here is so sad and I fear only going to get worse. I believe as a society we need to take care of the people. It should neither be a privilege or a right. It is (like you said) our moral obligation.

      1. Its a scary time right now. Maybe things will turn around at election time, but I dont think the pendulum has swung enough to right itself yet. I hope I’m wrong. 😬

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