First step for the Right to Health Care in the US?

On Sunday night, after more than a year of debate, the U.S. House of Representatives passed Health Care Reform legislation. No, the bill was not the one that most human rights advocates wanted to see. And yes, there will be plenty of work to do to ensure that the right to health care is fully met in the United States. But the fact that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care act will soon become the law of the land marks a recognition of how poor our current “profits-before-patients” health care system really is.

Human rights advocates now have their work cut out for them at the federal and state levels to make sure that 2010 marks the beginning of a way out – towards a system where no one is denied care based on an inability to pay and where the government is held accountable for making sure that the system works.

Earlier this month, Amnesty International published Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Care Crisis in the USA, which finds that despite spending more per person than any other country on health care, the U.S. ranks behind 40 other countries when it comes to women dying in pregnancy or child birth. The report documents barriers to access in the provision of maternal health care around the country.

Among the horror stories in that report is the case of Starla Darling, a 27-year-old who was close to her due date when she learned that the Ohio cookie plant where she had worked for eight years was going to be closed down and that her health insurance would expire just three days later. Faced with the prospect of paying thousands of dollars in medical bills, Starla asked her caregiver to induce labor two days before her insurance was set to expire. Ultimately, Starla had to have a C-section. To add insult to injury, the insurance company denied her claim as it was so close to the end of her employer-provided insurance coverage, and left her with nearly $18,000 in medical bills. (Robert Pear reported Starla’s story for The New York Times.)

Starla’s story – and those of hundreds like her – are indicative of a larger problem. Private insurance companies use a business model that relies on not providing care. Those who need to access health care are a cost to insurance companies, and like any business, they work to minimize their costs and maximize their profits.

The legislation does impose some limits on the power of insurance companies to say “no” when patients need care. Open discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions and women will be illegal when the law takes effect. The legislation also includes measures – particularly the expansion of government insurance for the poor (Medicaid) and more funding for Federally Qualified Health Centers– that will improve access for poor and marginalized communities.

But according to the Congressional Budget Office, at least 20 million will remain uninsured even after passage of this bill. And the additional regulations on insurance companies – while a needed first step – do not go far enough to ensure that patients – and not profits – are the primary concern of our health care system. One could even say that the legislation as it stands right now – with a requirement that every individual purchase insurance but no limits on the profit margins or compensation levels of insurance companies – entrenches the profit-first model. If the U.S. is to join other developed countries in guaranteeing quality health care for all, this is a model that must be questioned in the years ahead.

As documented in Amnesty International’s report, Deadly Delivery, these reforms alone will not end the maternal health care crisis in the US, because of systemic flaws that extend well beyond a lack of health insurance.  A coordinated, systematic and comprehensive approach to maternal health care is needed to address the myriad obstacles standing in the way of women getting the care they need.  Discrimination in the health care system, a lack of nationally standardized guidelines ensuring that the health care provided is safe, and inadequate funding for existing programs are among the many problems faced by women that have not yet been adequately addressed in the current health care reform effort.

President Obama and the Congressional leadership should get some credit for the positive aspects of this bill. We should also be reminding them that we still have a long way to go to fully respect the right to health care and the right to maternal health. An Office of Maternal Health – based within the Department of Health and Human Services – would be a good step towards ensuring that health care for women and mothers is universal, equitable and accountable.

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11 thoughts on “First step for the Right to Health Care in the US?

  1. I don't understand why Amnesty USA is portraying Obama in such a positive light since his policies are no different to any of his predecessors – escalation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, business friendly policies and no change in the US approach to climate change. The kind of health care 'reform' that this article is touting along with the mainstream media is nothing but a further entrenchment of the privatized health care that is causing untold suffering for millions of people. This is not reform and Amnesty should distance itself from the propaganda used by the US government, not support it.

  2. I don’t understand why Amnesty USA is portraying Obama in such a positive light since his policies are no different to any of his predecessors – escalation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, business friendly policies and no change in the US approach to climate change. The kind of health care ‘reform’ that this article is touting along with the mainstream media is nothing but a further entrenchment of the privatized health care that is causing untold suffering for millions of people. This is not reform and Amnesty should distance itself from the propaganda used by the US government, not support it.

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  4. Many times it will require another person that will put the knowledge before you before you know that all people will need to take more treatment.

  5. The U.S. Government is killin' me. Doesn't the entire nation get that the health care bill absolutely will drive up taxes for us all and even invent new ones for all of us?

  6. Of all the comments above, INCLUDING Amnesty's, i only ( & WHOLEHEARTEDLY ) agree with Michael Tasseron's diagnosis.

    Amnesty's ( albeit limited ) support for Obama's health "reform" ( which reinforces the corporate stranglehold over health "care" ) is telling us something vital about Amnesty's politics itself.

    Amnesty is acting ( to a HUGE extent & especially throughout the current Presidency ) as the NETHER appendage of the Democratic Party, reflecting NGO reformism's ONGOING & INCREASING impotence & paralysis in american politics.

    Amnesty lacks the vision to do otherwise.

    It can't provide the leadership needed in this critical historical juncture, even in reform.

    It's already ( long since ) reached the end of its ( system & self allotted ) rope.

    To expect greater vision, spine or muscle from Amnesty would be a further waste of time.

  7. The U.S. Government is killin’ me. Doesn’t the entire nation get that the health care bill absolutely will drive up taxes for us all and even invent new ones for all of us?

  8. Of all the comments above, INCLUDING Amnesty’s, i only ( & WHOLEHEARTEDLY ) agree with Michael Tasseron’s diagnosis.

    Amnesty’s ( albeit limited ) support for Obama’s health “reform” ( which reinforces the corporate stranglehold over health “care” ) is telling us something vital about Amnesty’s politics itself.

    Amnesty is acting ( to a HUGE extent & especially throughout the current Presidency ) as the NETHER appendage of the Democratic Party, reflecting NGO reformism’s ONGOING & INCREASING impotence & paralysis in american politics.

    Amnesty lacks the vision to do otherwise.

    It can’t provide the leadership needed in this critical historical juncture, even in reform.

    It’s already ( long since ) reached the end of its ( system & self allotted ) rope.

    To expect greater vision, spine or muscle from Amnesty would be a further waste of time.

  9. Clearly, the financial mood is beginning to show signs of recovery and this is very much obvious within the private lending sector. I enjoyed this article and can draw some differentiations with this in terms of the growth in payday loan companies for example. I believe that in possibly 12 months we will see a global growth output which will instill much needed confidence in the financial sector.

  10. Clearly, the financial mood is beginning to show signs of recovery and this is very much obvious within the private lending sector. I enjoyed this article and can draw some differentiations with this in terms of the growth in payday loan companies for example. I believe that in possibly 12 months we will see a global growth output which will instill much needed confidence in the financial sector.