Presidential debate on healthcare as a right or commodity

From our allies at the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI):

Last night's presidential debate addressed the key issue for health care reform in the United States: do candidates see health care as a right or as a commodity? [ NY Times Coverage ]

"I think it should be a right for every American." This was Senator Obama's answer.

What does this mean for Obama's health care plan? Does the plan really treat health care as a right? As advocates, it is our responsibility to push his campaign to move beyond rhetoric and present a plan that protects the human right to health and health care.

In the debate, the question unfortunately pitted rights against responsibility ("Is health care in America a privilege, a right, or a responsibility?"), neglecting that all rights entail responsibilities. Senator McCain described health care as a personal — not collective — responsibility: "I think it's a responsibility [ ... ] it is certainly my responsibility. It is certainly small-business people and others, and they understand that responsibility".

Both candidates sidestepped the initial question that referred to the use of health care as a commodity: "Senator, selling health care coverage in America as the marketable commodity has become a very profitable industry. Do you believe health care should be treated as a commodity?"

In response, Obama outlined how his plan would help people to "buy insurance", and McCain compared accessing health care to "purchas[ing] other things in America".

These responses reflect the findings of a recent human rights assessment of the presidential nominees’ health care plans. Here’s a summary of that publication:

Senators Obama and McCain have put forward health care reform plans that fail to meet human rights standards, according to an analysis by the National Health Law Program (NHeLP) and the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI). This assessment, based on human rights standards for health care reform, finds that both plans rely on market competition to solve the current health care crisis, without addressing how markets could be incentivized to put health protection ahead of the drive for profits.

Despite significant differences in approach, the nominees' plans share a focus on a consumer product — insurance coverage — rather than on actual health care, a public good. Neither plan recognizes the human right to health care — a right guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The assessment develops detailed standards for the implementation of the human right to health care in the United States and suggests basic steps the nominees could take towards meeting those standards.

The publication, "The Human Right to Health Care: Nominees' Plans Lag Behind Public Demands," is available in PDF format at the NESRI website.