Personal Health

We Must Establish a Constitutional Right to Health Care

The absence of health care as a right is costing taxpayers billions.

Today's economic crisis, and the federal government's response, is like putting a finger in the dike to avert a major catastrophe -- possibly even a depression.

 

But as quickly as we plug one leak, another springs forth.

Congress is seeking to avoid deflation by pumping up public confidence and economic demand to encourage consumers who have lost faith and are operating on a psychology of fear. Most immediately and importantly, the credit crunch and consumer withdrawal is affecting the automotive industry. Millions of jobs and thousand of related suppliers are at stake if the auto industry fails, or if Congress fails to act. If this iconic sector collapses it's likely the American people will feel even greater economic pain over a more protracted period of time than is currently anticipated.

The truth is $25 billion may not be enough to save the auto industry. Worse, other troubled economic institutions may soon surface needing help. At some point Congress is going to run out of enough fingers, toes and elbows to plug the holes in our economic dike.

President Barack Obama will soon have to make a judgment to reform the nation's "wall" if he is, as he so often says, to build a more perfect union. The wall I refer to is the U. S. Constitution.

Candidate Obama said he can't bring the change we need on his own. He needs the American people to stay actively involved. At noon on January 20, he will say the following, "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." If Barack Obama is going to be a truly transformative President I suggest he also can't bring the change we need, and he wants, with the Constitution as it is.

The Constitution is the wall that surrounds everything within it. The current wall consists of material from two central sources: a supreme law and the free enterprise system. The Constitution gives direction and authority to Congress, the president, federal agencies and to the states (under the Tenth Amendment). It is this sacred document that also grants the free market, our laissez-faire capitalist system, the legal authority to operate.

The First Amendment illustrates the interaction between these two wall-building materials -- the public and the private sides. That familiar amendment states that Congress shall make no law prohibiting or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. That's it! The Constitution doesn't say USA Today, New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Defender, AM, FM, Satellite Radio, Newsweek, Time, Channels 2, 5, 7, or 9, PBS or CNN. Nor does it state cell phones, i-phones, the internet, and on-and-on. So, while it's impossible to truly determine the economic impact of the First Amendment, the Constitution clearly has a major impact to our nation's economic vitality.

Because our current economic crisis is forcing us to think outside the box, one topic worthy of renewed discussion is health care. What if the Constitution said: "All citizens shall enjoy the right to health care of equal high quality and the Congress shall have the power to implement this article by appropriate legislation?"

Beyond the obvious benefits of greater and better health care itself, imagine the economic consequences: thousands of doctors and nurses being trained; new medical colleges established and older ones expanded; increased medical research; a massive preventive health care industry springing up; new hospitals in needy urban and rural areas with the private sector, federal, state, county and local governments all working cooperatively under the authority granted by the Constitution and Congress.

The absence of this human right as a health care constitutional amendment has major economic consequences as well. Preventive medicine is almost entirely missing from our current health care system, which costs taxpayers billions.

Of course, even without an amendment, Congress can pass legislation granting universal and comprehensive health care to all Americans. That's possible and candidate Barack Obama promised to do so in his first term in office. However, while high quality health care for all Americans can be established without a constitutional amendment, it can't be sustained without such an amendment. Future presidents and Congresses are under no legal obligation to continue past legislative programs. For the new wall of health care to be built and sustained for as long as the nation exists it must have a constitutional foundation!

How can we afford such a system? Without a constitutional right to health care we already spend nearly twice as much as any other developed nation in the world -- about $2.5 trillion or 16% of our GDP -- yet nearly fifty million Americans are without health insurance and often receive their care in the most expensive manner possible, in the local hospital emergency room.

With a health care constitutional amendment, instead of plugging a hole in the dike, we would be building a wall with a strong and solid foundation. Instead of spending money on more band-aids, a revised Constitution would give direction to a unique American purpose and, over time, solve an historic problem. And with American innovation we could put millions of Americans to work expanding a more balanced economic system on the solid foundation of health care for all. Health care would be a human right protected by the American people in our Constitution.

Congressman Jackson is a seven term Member of Congress serving on the Labor Health and Human Services Appropriations subcommittee. He is the co-author with Frank Watkins of A More Perfect Union, Advancing New American Rights.
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