Do We Have a Right to Health Care?

Ask any American politician if their goal is to provide all Americans with the highest quality health care available in this society, and the answer will almost certainly be a resounding yes.

Ask them if they believe all Americans have a right to such health care, and they'll probably still respond affirmatively, even though they may take a little longer to answer. They know if they say no they'll have to explain to the public who will receive it, who won't and what's the criteria.

So politicians profess to believe in health care for all Americans. But do they believe enough to secure it in the only place that really counts, in the U.S. Constitution?

That leads to a variation of the proverbial question, Which cames first, the chicken or the egg? or which should come first, health care programs or the right to health care programs?

As a practical legislator, I support progressive incremental legislation and improvements in our health care system. But doing so in many ways puts the cart before the horse. We ought to determine first, Do we have a right to health care?

I believe health care is a human right, but it only becomes an American right -- except for Supreme Court interpretation and precedent -- if it's in the Constitution. And it's more secure if it's there explicitly.

I've proposed a health care amendment (HJ Res. 30), but only 35 of my House colleagues -- liberals and all others -- are co-sponsors. It reads:

Section 1. All persons shall enjoy the right to health care of equal high quality.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.

We can afford health care for all our citizens. The United States has a $12 trillion economy that dwarfs that of all other countries in the world. It's the most powerful economic engine the world has ever seen. The United States currently spends more than $2 trillion annually on health care, about 16 percent of our gross domestic product -- the most of any nation. Canada is second, spending only about 9 percent of its GDP on health care. Most other nations spend between 6 percent and 7 percent.

Yet the United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not provide health care for all its citizens. We have 46 million Americans (and growing) with no health insurance, an equal number with inadequate health insurance, and millions more who say they're paying more money but receiving less health care and are dissatisfied.

We can't have it both ways. We can't be the richest nation in the world that spends the most money on health care, yet complain that we can't figure out how to organize a health care system for all our citizens and pay for it when every other industrial nation has done so.

Health care is not and should not be a partisan political or ideological issue. Human rights and constitutional amendments are:

Nonpartisan -- not Democratic, Republican or Independent.

Nonideological -- not liberal, conservative or moderate.

Nonprogrammatic -- they don't tell you how the right to health care should be realized -- single payer or medical savings accounts -- thus allowing for a broad array of programs, legislation and ways to achieve the goal.

Nonspecial interest -- constitutional amendments are for all Americans.

Many House members fight constantly for constitutional amendments, including the following that are introduced in virtually every session of Congress:

Right to life amendment

Term limits amendment

Balanced budget amendment

Tax limitation amendment

Don't desecrate the flag amendment

Prayer in school amendment

Ten Commandments in public places amendment

God in the Pledge of Allegiance amendment

Marriage or anti-gay rights amendment

Establish English as the official language of the United States amendment

An Arnold Schwarzenegger amendment -- an amendment to the Constitution so an immigrant can become president

Second Amendment gun rights -- Republicans campaign every election on the belief -- and many Americans believe, rightly or wrongly -- that the Second Amendment gives them the individual right to a gun.

So why don't Democrats and Republicans join together and fight for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing every American the right to equal high quality health care?

In the words of the Preamble to our Constitution, health care for all would help us to build "a more perfect union."