Obama to GOP: Health insurance is now a 'right.' Is he right?

Two months away from opening day of Obamacare, President Obama made a forceful defense of what he called the ‘right’ to health insurance. Republicans say they can’t find that right in the Constitution, and some are calling for Americans to 'burn their Obamacare cards' in protest.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Barack Obama speaks to the media regarding events in Egypt from his rental vacation home on Martha's Vineyard, Thursday. On his Saturday radio address, Obama said healthcare insurance is a 'right.'

In a forceful defense of government-supported healthcare, President Obama on Saturday called health insurance a fundamental “right” that Republicans are trying to deny the American family.

The debate about whether health insurance is a right, or even a privilege, has been going on for decades.  Mr. Obama, in fact, used the word during the 2008 presidential debates, and has made similar arguments hence.

But Obama’s assertion in his Saturday address ratcheted up the stakes for the coming enrollment opening for Obamacare, a law passed solely by Democrats in 2010, which makes health insurance affordable for millions of poorer Americans, but penalizes Americans who don’t want to buy health insurance.

While Obama used the word “right” as a cudgel against ongoing efforts by Republicans to defund the law, the remark is sure to fuel debate over the extent to which the right to health insurance may diminish other rights actually enumerated in the Constitution, such as the right to personal liberty and property.

“I’m going to keep doing everything in my power to make sure this law works as it’s supposed to,” Obama said in his recorded radio address. “Because in the United States of America, health insurance isn’t a privilege – it is your right.  And we’re going to keep it that way.”

Obama and other progressives have long couched the issue of healthcare as a moral one, where the country has an obligation to protect the health of everyone, even the millions of Americans who can’t afford health insurance and are thus relegated to county clinics and emergency rooms for healthcare.

In confirming the Affordable Care Act as constitutional last summer, the Supreme Court didn’t expressly call it an individual right, but ruled that the “federal government has the right to regulate human behavior by taxing it,” as Texas Tech University law professor Arnold Loewy put it in a recent column in the Lubbock, Texas, Avalanche-Journal.

A suggestion by Republican activists that Americans should simply opt out of Obamacare and thus undermine its central algorithm – younger, healthier people must subsidize Americans with more health problems – may be a “rather novel tactic,” writes Matthew Yglesias for the online magazine Slate, but only because it is “blatantly immoral.”

But a communal moral prerogative isn’t the same thing as a “right,” at least not in the United States, many conservatives argue.

“The Founding Fathers stated that we have rights to life, liberty and property, and advocated a government that protects those rights,” columnist Armstrong Williams wrote in an op-ed for The Hill news site late last year. “If we interpreted our Constitution correctly, America was built on the principle that government exists to protect our rights that already exist, not dictate what rights we have, do not have or should have.”

Both sides may be missing the point, however, on whether health insurance is a “right” under the American system, writes Avik Roy on Forbes.com.

“The progressive conception of health care as a positive right misses something important: that we could provide better, and more affordable, coverage for everyone if we understood the degree to which classical liberal principles, like choice and competition and voluntarism, can achieve a superior form of universal health care,” writes Mr. Roy, a former adviser to Mitt Romney and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

“The libertarian conception of health care as a negative right, however, also misses something important: the degree to which it is a worthy thing for us to pool our resources in order to support those who, through no fault of their own, find themselves with disability or disease.”

Obama’s forceful phraseology in his Saturday address underscored the building momentum for the official launch of Obamacare. In two months, state health insurance exchanges will begin enrolling Americans who are eligible for government subsidies to buy insurance.

With that deadline looming, Obama took square aim at critics who say the law infringes on the right of Americans to make their own decisions about healthcare, and who suggest premiums could skyrocket under rules that require insurance companies to reimburse doctors for more services and cover people with so-called preexisting conditions.

“A lot of Republicans seem to believe that if they can gum up the works and make this law fail, they’ll somehow be sticking it to me. But they’d just be sticking it to you,” Obama said. “Your health insurance isn’t something to play politics with…. This isn’t a game. This is about the economic security of millions of families.”

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