Make health care a right for all

By Dr. Bruce Trigg
Albuquerque Journal, Feb. 25, 2011

Today is Human Rights Day at the State Capitol. And today Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino will present Senate Joint Resolution 5 for a state constitutional amendment that will recognize health care as a human right to the first legislative committee to which it has been assigned.
The amendment requires passage by both houses of the Legislature, and then it goes directly to the voters at the next general election. This is the closest thing we have to a referendum under our state laws; the voters get to make the final decision in November.
The timing for this amendment couldn't be better.
All over the world people are protesting and risking their lives to win the democratic and human rights that too many Americans take for granted. But our own rights and freedoms were won through many decades of struggle. And the struggle isn't over. Political forces are at work that would further restrict access to medical care. That is why this bill has been introduced.
The fundamental human right to health is recognized by every other Western democratic country and by numerous international bodies and treaties. Why shouldn't the people of the United States be able to access medical care as a right, based only on medical need? Why don't we guarantee that everyone has medical care on the same basis as we now provide police and fire protection and universal free education?
Instead health care is treated like any other commodity that gets bought and sold according to the forces of the marketplace.
We mustn't overlook the fact that many Americans already do receive medical care either provided directly by the government (such as the Veteran's Administration, the military, the Indian Health Service, UNM Hospital, the Department of Health) or paid for by the government (Medicaid for the poor and Medicare for those over 65). But all the others are essentially on their own.
Those with no insurance — 1 in 4 of our fellow New Mexicans — too often suffer needlessly and die younger because they had limited or no access to care. Even many with private health insurance cannot afford the cost of a serious illness. Excessive medical bills are the cause of more than half the bankruptcies in this country. Supporters of this amendment believe our country can do better: We can and should take care of all our people.
The wording of the proposed amendment is simple. It states: "Health care is a fundamental right that is an essential safeguard of human life and dignity, and the state shall ensure that every resident is able to realize this right by establishing a comprehensive system of quality health care that is accessible to each resident on an equitable basis, regardless of ability to pay."
The amendment paraphrases the words of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who was the archbishop of Chicago. This religious and moral leader sparked a national movement in the 1990s to recognize health care as a human right for which government must take responsibility. Every major religion shares these values.
Why are we introducing this amendment now in the midst of a contentious national debate over the recently passed Affordable Care Act (ACA)? Because, no matter what you think of the ACA, this amendment provides us with an ethical and moral yardstick by which we can measure the outcome of the ACA and of any future state or national health reform policies. The amendment is a mirror that shows us what kind of a society we really are. What are our core values? Do we really believe in the value of all people? Are we willing to provide everyone with the medical care they need to live a healthy and long a life?
I believe that we really do care for our families and neighbors and co-workers and that is what New Mexicans will say if they're given the chance in November.
Dr. Bruce Trigg is a pediatrician and recently retired after 23 years with the New Mexico Department of Health. He is chair of the N.M. Network of Health Professionals for a National Health Program.