Health is a Right — Not a Commodity
Human rights are the foundation of the social contract. Yet here, in the richest country on earth, this social contract is broken.
Note: This text is an adaptation of a speech that I gave at a hearing of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing at the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on June 20, 2017.
My name is Joia Mukherjee. I am a resident of Brookline, Massachusetts. As a professor at Harvard Medical School, I teach global health and human rights. As the chief medical officer at Partners In Health, an international medical charity founded by Dr. Paul Farmer, I support the delivery of health care as a human right in countries around the world, such as Haiti, Rwanda, and Liberia. These countries, while impoverished, believe that human rights, and the right to health in particular, are the foundation of the social contract that citizens expect from their government.
Yet here, in the richest country on earth, this social contract is broken. The right to health is enshrined in international treaties and the constitutions of a large number of countries around the world, but in the United States, basic rights like health care, education, and even the right to vote are under increasingly grave threats. Even as we speak, the federal government is selling each pillar of our social contract and our human rights to the highest bidder.
We hope that our American institutions will save us from this fire sale. But we, as citizens, are ultimately responsible for our democracy. As such, we are here to say:
Enough is enough. Health is a right — not a commodity, not a privilege.
I am a physician who has witnessed the deaths of the uninsured who arrive at hospitals too late for lifesaving care. I am a mother whose private insurance has covered cancer treatment for her 2-year-old son as she watched other parents struggle for bus fares, days off, and co-pays. I am a global citizen who has witnessed the transformation of communities where the right to health is increasingly fulfilled, making catastrophic expenditures and death from destitution ancient history. I am an American who supports Medicare for all, publicly funded health care as a basic right of our citizenship.
We all must. We must be a bulwark against the constant and brutal dismantling of our American social contract. Medicare for all means the government provides health care through a fair tax structure rather than through a system of private enterprise. I, personally, do not want to call it “single payer.” We do not call our roads, education system, or elections single-payer. No, they are provided as part of the public commons and paid for by our tax system. Similarly, Medicare for all, the public provision of health care, must be part of our social contract, as it is everywhere from England to Canada, Costa Rica to Rwanda. Health, education, elections, and basic infrastructure are the bricks and mortar of our society. They are our rights as citizens. They are human rights. As such, they must be publicly provided, available to all, and crafted through a deliberative process of open dialogue with the citizens of this country.
Join me in supporting the public provision of health care and health as a human right. Let us be the standard bearers of American decency, of a strong social contract.