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Tuesday Aug 08, 2017

Health Care Is a Right That Must Extend to Everyone

I remember back in elementary school that I would get incredibly frustrated if I asked my teacher the meaning of a word and she wouldn't tell me.  

[Masses of people in the shape of the United States]

"Look it up in the dictionary," was her standard answer.

I often wondered why she wouldn't just tell me what I wanted to know. It wasn't until later in life that I realized that the act of searching for an answer made it more meaningful.

One of the many privileges I have enjoyed in my service to our members as an AAFP director has been my assignment to the Board's Subcommittee on Resolution and Policy Review. Not only has it given me the opportunity to become increasingly familiar with AAFP policies, position papers and recommendations, but appointees review all resolutions before they are distributed to delegates and alternate delegates who comprise the AAFP Congress of Delegates.  

Three resolutions asking the AAFP to declare that health care is a human right already have been submitted for this year's Congress of Delegates: one introduced by the Massachusetts, California, Colorado, Maine and New Hampshire chapters; another by the New York State and California chapters; and a third by the Illinois chapter.The introduction of this cluster of resolutions begs the dual questions of why we must attach such a specific definition to health care and what the results of doing so would be.

In my youth, I read a quote attributed to an unknown Native American philosopher that I remember as, "It is good that man was not given ownership of the sun, because he would choose who it would shine on and who it would not."

This is where we find ourselves with health care. As I began writing this post, the U.S. Congress was ensnarled in a lengthy debate regarding the political and moral palatability of granting or denying health care to millions of U.S. citizens. So, recalling my elementary teacher's sage advice, I grabbed my Merriam-Webster Dictionary and looked up the meanings of "health," "health care" and "rights."

  • Health: a condition in which someone or something is thriving or doing well; the condition of being well or free from disease
  • Health care: efforts made to maintain or restore physical, mental or emotional well-being, especially by trained and licensed professionals
  • Right: something to which one has a just claim

The concept of health care as a basic human right seems to have somehow failed to gain appropriate social traction, but if we are truly committed to diversity, inclusion and the well-being of all our citizens, this concept cannot shine on some while the disenfranchised wither in the shadows of disease. If we agree that health care is a right, then it becomes our moral and social imperative that we as a nation use only facts and truth to create a condition in which everyone has the opportunity to thrive and achieve well-being.

The 2016 Congress of Delegates challenged the AAFP to take decisive action in our efforts to give all citizens the opportunity to maintain physical, mental and emotional well-being. One of the top four statements in the AAFP Strategic Plan, in fact, directs us to "Take a leadership role in addressing social determinants of health as they impact individuals, families and communities across their lifespan and strive for health equity."

This commitment resulted in the creation of the AAFP Center for Diversity and Health Equity, which counts the following as one of its seven major goals: "Advocate for policies at the national, state and local levels to address social determinants of health and support health equity."

AAFP policy has supported the idea of health care for all for nearly 30 years, and our constituent chapters continue to challenge the Academy to boldly advocate for the inclusion of all segments of our society when we speak about basic health care rights. Resolutions asking the AAFP to declare health care as a right seem akin to voting for Mom, apple pie and smiling babies. However, this concept has not been embraced by the U.S. Congress because of the significant budget implications, so the debates within the D.C. beltway will undoubtedly continue.

A "privilege" can be thought of as a nonessential life-enhancing function an individual can choose to accept or reject. By contrast, a basic human right denied or rejected can result in a loss of dignity, a deterioration of social worth, or a loss of precious health or life. I hope this realization drives the basic definition of health care this country someday adopts to illuminate the lives of all its citizens.

On Aug. 21, a solar eclipse will temporarily cast a great shadow over the U.S. mainland. As the moon blocks daylight in the eclipse path, it will not discriminate between those on whom the sun will shine and those on whom it will not. Perhaps this once-in-a-lifetime celestial event can remind us of a valuable lesson.

Gary LeRoy, M.D., is a member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

Posted at 11:46AM Aug 08, 2017 by Gary LeRoy, M.D.

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