Is Health Care A Right? Or a Privilege?


Adapted from my upcoming book: Your Money AND Your Life, coming Spring 2017.

In 1992, Dr. Kathryn Anastos was quoted as saying:

“It is unconscionable that we ration health care by the ability to pay… Health care should be a given.”

She’s not alone in her opinion. Even today, politicians, activists, and even physicians on the Left claim that health care is a fundamental right, that should be guaranteed to all by our government. This underlies the concept of socialized medicine, where the state becomes the provider of health care to the entire population.

These liberal progressives also make the point that anyone who opposes their idea of health care being a right, must view it as a privilege. In other words, reserved only for those lucky few who can afford to pay for it.

So which label is correct? Is health care a right? Or is it a privilege?

Actually, it’s neither. And to prove my point, let’s compare this philosophy to how we view some of life’s basic needs.

When I was in grade school, I remember being taught about three things that are essential for living: food, water, and shelter.

Never were truer words spoken. We have to have food and water to survive, and without shelter we would be exposed to the dangers of the elements, wild animals, and our fellow humans intent on doing harm.

And yet, none of these essentials is considered a right.

Our founding documents do establish a number of rights, such as to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; to the freedom of speech and of religion; and the right to bear arms. But nowhere did the framers mention the right to eat, the right to drink, or the right to housing.

Don’t keep up with your rent or mortgage? You can be legally evicted.

Ignore the water bill? The local utility company will come to your house and shut it off.

Likewise, I don’t know of any grocery stores or restaurants that would accept “It’s my right to eat!” as a form of payment.

While it’s true that the government does assist the elderly, the poor, and the disabled in obtaining these basic necessities, these programs don’t apply to everyone. To receive such state assistance, one must first qualify by meeting certain criteria.

So there is no right to have food, water, or shelter, and even most liberals stop short of saying that it is the responsibility of the government to provide them to everyone.

But does that mean that they are privileges? Hardly.

A privilege can be defined as a “special right or advantage, available only to a particular group of people.”

Clearly, there is no privileged group of Americans who are the only ones that can find food, water, or shelter; the majority of us are able to eat, drink, and live comfortably, without any financial help from the government whatsoever.

So if some of our most basic needs are neither rights – nor privileges – then what exactly are they?

They are necessities, and nothing more. Because we need them to live.

Not so with health care, though. Unlike food, water, or shelter, health care is not a necessity. Health care may be able to make us healthier, alleviate pain and suffering, and prolong life, but it isn’t essential on a day-to-day, or even routine basis.

In fact, I’ve met many Americans who’ve gone for years, decades, and sometimes most of their lives without receiving any professional health care.

But if health care isn’t absolutely necessary for life, then why is it even spoken of in terms of being a right, vs a privilege?

Because it’s a great platform for big government proponents on the Left to take a moral stance, and promote their agenda by claiming that only the government can fix our broken health care system.

Calling health care a right also sets up a false argument against conservatives: anyone who opposes the idea of “health care for all,” must take the cruel and heartless stance that health care is deserved only by a few.

Except our system, even as it exists now belies that theory. Just as the elderly, the poor, and the disabled receive help in obtaining their food, water, and shelter, so do we have massive government programs in place to assist them with – health care.

A lot of it. In fact, over 1/3 of Americans with health insurance get their coverage through the government, and these programs pay for virtually all of those recipients’ health care.

Yet by claiming that health care is a right, liberals seek to extend this government-funded – and thus government controlled – health insurance to cover most, if not all citizens.

There’s no need to, however. Because health care isn’t a privilege. Nor is it a right.

Health care is simply a service industry, like many others.

When the framers of our Constitution enumerated their list of unalienable rights, Thomas Jefferson said it best: the government’s role is “to secure these Rights,” and not to create new ones.

Including, the misguided notion of there being a right to health care.

It’s not the COSTS of health care that are outrageous…it’s the CHARGES.

Kevin Wacasey, M.D. Bio here.


An earlier version of this appeared on Healthcareonomics.

Comments (16)

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  1. Bart I says:

    It’s certainly not a fundamental right. I suppose anything can be a legal right if a legislature codifies it, or if a judge decrees it.

    The problem with making something like healthcare a right is that it’s no longer subject to natural restrictions needed to keep the lifeboat from being swamped.

  2. Z Woof says:

    Kevin, it is easy to see you are not licensed to sell health insurance. You say you have Blue Cross of Texas but I have always called that local yocal Blue Cross of Chicago.

    Your Dr. Wacasey’s Guide to Buying Health Insurance uses the magic formula of P + O = W. I don’t do that and I have tried to talk Lee Benham, another NCPA licensed agent with comments, out of using it but he won’t listen.

    If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. – Albert Einstein

    I never pay too much attention to doctors about health insurance because they are usually wrong. I sell to them and I can tell you they are no smarter than the lawyers, who don’t have a clue either. But, the public thinks that a doctor should know about insurance so they do pay attention to the things they say.

    The thing I have noticed about doctors is they consider their employees second class citizens and are not interested in the best coverage for them. If Docs can save a dollar by putting employees in danger they are going to save that dollar.

    YOU write, “But this Equation is by no means exhaustive, nor does it tell the entire story about what those crafty, health insurance corporate lawyers may have included in the fine print sitting before you there, on your dining room table.” That’s a little harsh.

    You further assert, “The Blues, as they are affectionately known, were some of the first to truly offer what we now consider to be health insurance, way back in the early 20th century.” Blue Cross was founded in 1929 and Blue Shield emerged in 1939. My company TIME wrote 15 years ago, “The length of TIME a company has been in business tells you if they’ve had sufficient TIME to get the complexities of health insurance right. It takes more than just a few years, decades even, to learn the business. TIME has a long tradition – with more than 110 years’ experience.” Now that would be 125 years experience.

    This consumer information piece also says, “TIME was the first company to introduce Medical Savings Accounts and was at the forefront of Health Savings Account legislation.”

    Devon says Golden Rule enrolled the 1st MSA in his famous “A brief History of Health Savings Accounts”. I called Devon immediately on the phone and told him his error but he has never corrected it. I told him he could have titled it, “A Brief History of TIME.”

  3. Lee Benham says:

    That’s not true. only an armature would use the formula P + O =w

    I use P + 0 = R
    Premium + out of pocket = Risk Factor.
    the worst possible thing that can happen in any given year.

  4. Ron Greiner says:

    WOW, now Z Woof has been banned.

  5. lpm says:

    These liberal progressives also make the point that anyone who opposes their idea of health care being a right, must view it as a privilege. In other words, reserved only for those lucky few who can afford to pay for it.

    I will take a different approach. Maybe I am wrong. But, this is how i see it. Take a very poor family in the U.S.A that has a child with cancer. I find it unbelievably hard to believe that this child will not receive first class care. I suspect that a bridge over medicaid will be built so that this child receives first class care–maybe St. Jude.

    Point being: 1. just because it is not a right, does not suggest that only the rich will consume. 2. in fact, i suspect that in the U.S.A, poor children with cancer receive far superior health care relative to poor children with cancer in countries that provide universal care.

    Doesn’t china have universal care? What do you think happens to a poor child in china with cancer? I don’t know the answer, but I suspect that the government takes the child and well life goes on.

  6. Bob Hertz says:

    Actually, some observers believe that a poor child with cancer in the USA receives better health care than a fully insured adult in Canada or Britain.

    That is because America pays stupendous sums of money to doctors and clinics that treat cancer, and stupendous sums of money for cancer drugs.

    The result is a surplus of cancer caregivers, and they can take a poor child for free rather often.

    This does not mean that the USA is perfect. From what I have read, Britain will let you die of cancer but it has enough money to let every senior have a home health aide.
    Seniors get a life that is easier but a little shorter.

  7. W says:

    @Ipm FYI, China does NOT have universal health care. Chinese does not have health insurance dominance either. China has FREE market health care. The answer to your question, what would happen to a poor kid in china when cancer? Social donation.

  8. W says:

    @Bart traditional medicine is MORE expensive! And traditional medicine is usually CASH only:-p

    • Bart I says:

      All I know is I remember picking up an English-language newspaper in Shanghai, and seeing an article on drug prices in China that could easily have been about the U.S.

      So yeah, I believe you.

  9. Alice says:

    Protecting yourself is one of the most important things, and it is the first foundation for people to work and develop best in all aspects, mind and body.

    • CancerEd says:

      The “right” to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness obviously includes eating whatever you want, abstaining from exercise, smoking, drinking and engaging in dangerous behavior. These “rights” also excuse people from any responsibilities related to their health and provides them with the “right” to contract and develop many avoidable diseases. If Americans and the government are not required to subsidize or regulate the “right” to free and dangerous, often irresponsible behavior, why are we required to fund, manage and treat the unintended consequences of obesity, diabetes, heart and lung disease, etc.? Of course, not all disease is the result of bad behavior, but those that are constitute a significant burden on the U.S. healthcare system. If more people would behave responsibly, it is likely we would not have this ongoing healthcare crisis.

  10. Bart I says:

    The right to purchase healthcare with your own money is undoubtedly a fundamental right. Forcing people to buy services they don’t need, or to pay for other peoples’ care as a condition of buying their own, could be viewed as an infringement of that right.

  11. Bart I says:

    On a slightly different tangent, if we as a society are committed to providing medicine to people who couldn’t otherwise afford it (whether as a right, privilege, or a charity), is there a case for different treatment for people who can’t afford care because (a) they are too poor to pay for basic care or coverage, or (b) their costs are unusually high because of a medical condition.

    Morally it’s hard to see a difference, although when considering moral hazard it’s easier to picture someone being voluntarily poor than voluntarily sick. On the other hand a sick person could run up high costs that would have served a larger number of healthy poor people.

    How about in terms of practicality, impact on the rest of the health care system, or on the types of assistance that would best serve the two groups?

    • Bart I says:

      As an example of what I had in mind: A person who contributes nothing toward his own health costs can reasonably expect the society that is paying the cost to determine what level of care and convenience are reasonable.

      But someone who is paying a substantial portion of an insurance premium and faithfully maintaining coverage might expect a higher level of service and more autonomy, even though his costs are still partially subsidized. If service is no better than the first case, there isn’t much incentive to maintain coverage.

  12. Klr says:

    The framers of the Declaration of Independence considered “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to be “unalienable rights” given by their “Creator.” Religious provenance arguments aside, I do not view any of these three as “rights.” The government clearly has the power to take away your life. They can most definitely take away your liberty. And, if the two aforementioned are taken away, I would imagine this would have a serious impact on one’s pursuit of happiness. While I do agree with single payer health care for all, I must call it a “privilege.” Even if we award it to our nation, it can most certainly – like these other three privileges – be taken away by the government.