Our Constitutional Right To Health

This speech was given by Gary M. Votour at the Healthcare For All rally held by Our Revolution South Carolina on April 15, 2017

constitutional“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

This is the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. Written in 1776, the Declaration stated the fundamental truths that our country was founded upon. It included specific concepts that everyone has a right to have: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Without a doubt, our founding fathers also felt that health was something everyone had a right to. Even if the actual word itself was absent, the inclusion of life as a human right clearly implies the need for health.

Thomas Jefferson even wrote about it in 1787: “health, without which there is no happiness.” The Constitution of our country specifies that we “promote the general welfare” of our citizens in its very first sentence.

Health care and health care insurance was not specifically mentioned for a good reason… Neither existed yet. 250 years ago, humans had not yet discovered germs, and illness and disease were treated by barbers using leeches and bloodletting. It would be another 100 years until antiseptic surgery and hospitals would begin the transition to health care we know today.

Yet these are the words that have helped shape the greatest nation on the planet Earth, and the United States of America has stood for these things since its founding. Despite epidemics of disease, wars both abroad and at home, terrorist attacks from within and without, economic depressions and recessions this country has held several fundamental beliefs. These include that all people are equal and that everyone has the right to live, to be free, to pursue happiness… and to be healthy.

Most importantly, we believe we all must work together for the common good and welfare of ourselves and future generations. Our government exists for the sole purpose of helping us realize these goals. We also believe that if our government works in ways contrary to the authority we have given it, we have the right to alter it.

These goals, including health, have evolved in step with our society’s growth. As our country grew, these words, written by our founding fathers, have been reinterpreted often. We have always focused on the conceptual meaning of the Declaration and the Constitution. A perfect example of this is the right to own firearms, which when written would have pertained to muskets. Now we recognize that as weapons evolved, so to have the rights of individuals to own them.

Unfortunately, the extreme partisanship of the last decade being exhibited amongst our elected leaders has led our government astray from many of these goals, in particular the right of everyone to have access to healthier lives.

Let’s start by looking at how we, as a country, compare to other countries around the globe. The Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, is the total amount of goods and services produced by a country withing a specific time period, usually a year. It is a way to measure how the money being spent by the people living in that country goes to different types of things.

As a large country with ample resources and production capability, the U.S. ranks first in GDP globally. The percentage of our GDP we spend on health care also tops the worldwide list. Looking at the % of GDP spent on health care for the top countries, we top the list at 17%.

In fact, if you look at the average amount the rest of the world spends on health care per person, the U.S. spends twice as much at nearly nine thousand dollars per person.

A FINAL how the US compares 01

With all of that money being spent, wouldn’t you think we’d have the best health care in the world? We don’t.

When compared to the other developed nations spending high percentages of their GDP on health care, we rank poorly.

A FINAL how the US compares 02Our infant mortality rate is nearly twice that of the leading country, France. Our obesity rate is more than four times greater than the first ranked, Switzerland. Our lives are shorter as well. In the U.S. the life expectancy at birth is less than 77 years, as compared to France and Canada at over 80 years.

When you combine these and other factors globally, we do even worse.

When compared globally the U.S. is consistently near the bottom of the list for chronic lung disease, drug-related deaths, general disability, heart disease, low birth weight, obesity and diabetes.

A FINAL how the US compares 03

How can this be happening in the country that spends more than any other nation on health care? The answer is simple… it’s not about how much we spend, but who we spend it on. These scores are all based on averages within each country. Averages take into account everyone, and not everyone in the U.S. has equal access to health care.

The high-ranking countries like England, Canada, France, and Germany all have health care systems which provide health insurance that provides access to healthcare for 100% of their population.

A decade ago, the U.S. percentage of people with health insurance was only 86%. Despite the major advances we have made in ensuring everyone in this country has access to healthcare, we fall short when it comes to our poor.

Now, thanks to the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (The ACA or more commonly called Obamacare) in 2016 the number of uninsured in this country dropped to a historic low of 9%.

A FINAL the successes of the ACA

The ACA included a mandate that required everyone to have health insurance and included generous subsidies for many who could not. The ACA was designed to include a complementary mandate that all 50 states would expand their Medicaid programs to include the poor.

Medicaid is a U.S. policy program that provides health care insurance to our nation’s poor, elderly and disabled. Administered by States and paid for by a mix of federal and state funds, it was established in 1965 as a part of the Social Security Act, which also created Medicare.

Medicare is a federal program of health insurance that covers the elderly and disabled, regardless of income. This is different than Medicaid, which provides a different level of health insurance to the elderly, disabled and poor.

Because of partisan political opposition to the ACA, 19 states have refused to expand their Medicaid programs, despite the fact that for the last several years the federal government is paying for 100% of the cost. This has prevented the ACA from being as effective as it could have been if they had all expanded.

Almost all of these states refusing to expand Medicaid are on the top ten list for percentage of uninsured nationwide. In descending order, the ten states that have the highest uninsured rates are Texas at 17%, Georgia, Oklahoma, Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina at 13%, Mississippi, North Carolina, Utah, and Alabama at 11%. Of these, only one (Louisiana) has expanded their Medicaid program to include their poor under the ACA.

A FINAL how the US compares 04

When it comes to health care, we rank poorly as a nation because we don’t let everyone who lives here have equal access to it. We are ignoring the fundamental rights our country was founded upon: life, liberty, happiness and health.

That right is being denied to millions of U.S. citizens based on the geography of where they live. Let’s take a quick look at one example of the geographical inequality in health care that has resulted from this ongoing political battle.

The twin cities of Fulton, Kentucky and South Fulton, Tennessee lie on the border between their states, neatly bisected by the state line which runs through it horizontally.

Around 1900, Fulton, KY was known as “The Banana Capital of the World”, because the rail lines moving bananas north from New Orleans all stopped there to get fresh ice for their cargo. South Fulton, TN, whose town motto is “Becoming Better Together”, co-hosts the “Twin City Banana Festival” each year with its sister city, and a 2,000-pound banana pudding is the star of the annual event.

Despite a colorful history, the economy of the area is depressed. The largest employer in the area is now the Walmart distribution center north of Fulton.

These two adjacent cities have nearly identical demographics. Both cities have about 2400 residents, and about 1 in 5 families live in poverty.

Kentucky expanded Medicaid under the ACA in 2014, and about 700 non-elderly adults in Fulton became eligible for Medicaid. Tennessee has not expanded Medicaid, and nothing changed for those living in South Fulton.

The people in these cities are not being treated equally. The people in both cities pay taxes. They both work hard to make a living and struggle with poverty. Yet on the Kentucky side of the state line the poor get access to primary care, diagnostics and treatments for often fatal illnesses and preventative care that can help keep them healthier and live longer, more productive lives.

A hundred feet away, on the southern side of that same line in Tennessee, the same person would get none of those benefits. They will live shorter lives, be more likely to forgo preventative care because they can’t afford it, and more likely to go bankrupt paying medical bills if they fall ill than their neighbors to the north.

A FINAL A City Divided

This is not the equality our forefathers intended. How did we get to this? To understand, We need to look back in history for a moment.

In 1963, the United States grieved as a nation, shocked by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson became President, and the following year he was elected in a landslide vote against his Republican opponent, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. As president, President Johnson pursued a liberal agenda he called “The Great Society” that attempted to address many social issues: civil rights, voting rights, poverty, arts, education issues, and most importantly for us… health care insurance.

President Johnson’s first speech to Congress began the push to create a different federal approach to health care insurance. He opened that speech with the same quote by Thomas Jefferson that I started this out with, “Without health, there is no happiness. An attention to health, then, should take the place of every other object.”

In closing his address with the following words, he set the stage for the first of several significant federal legislative initiatives to address the need for health care and insurance in the United States.

“Whatever we aspire to do together, our success in those enterprises–and our enjoyment of the fruits that result–will rest finally upon the health of our people. We cannot and we will not overcome all the barriers–or surmount all the obstacles–in one effort, no matter how intensive. But in all the sectors I have mentioned we are already behind our capability and our potential. Further delay will only compound our problems and deny our people the health and happiness that could be theirs.”

Under President Johnson’s strong leadership, Congress began to push forward with the creation of Medicare, which created a national health insurance plan for everyone over the age of 65.

In 1965, they created two tiers of insurance. Medicare Part A, funded by employer and employee payroll taxes, provides hospital and some nursing home care for adults covered by the Social Security Act. Medicare Part B is a premium supported plan that is funded by general revenues and beneficiary co-payments, pays for physician visits and some services.

Congress worked with the opposition to gain their support. The plan left many service areas that insurers could still work within. Doctors would not be required to participate. Hospitals would receive direct payments for care.

The third tier of the plan was Medicaid, and it was defined as “welfare medicine” from the start. It was not “social insurance” like Medicare, and it connoted dependence on the goodwill of government to those in need. It paled in comparison to Medicare, but it was a beginning.

States were not required to offer Medicaid programs, but if they did they had to meet federal guidelines for some basic requirements. To satisfy state concerns about control, they were given great latitude over how these requirements would be met.

Eventually, the scope of services Medicaid provided would expand, as did the number of states deciding to join the program. By 1970, 48 states had committed to some form of acceptable Medicaid program.

medicare vs medicaid

Let’s skip ahead through 45 years of changes and additions, made by both parties that improved both Medicare and Medicaid. Medicaid was expanded to include pregnant women and children living in poverty. Medicare grew as enrollment increased as an entire generation began to live longer past retirement. Both programs became more expensive for the Federal and State governments that paid for them, using the taxes we pay. An entire branch of the Federal government was created to develop and administer both programs with efficiency. At the same time a for-profit industry grew to provide the same benefits to the rest of us, usually provided as a benefit by employers who competed to get the best employees by offering not just the highest pay but also the best insurance.

Then President Obama was elected and became president in 2008. Realizing there was a unique opportunity to make progress in the governmental role of improving the health of all Americans, he worked with Congress to create the Affordable Care Act, the ACA, also known as Obamacare.

This all fact. I know it is a bit boring, but in order to move forward, we need to understand where we’ve been, both as a nation and as individuals. I deliberately did not introduce myself yet, because I did not want my story to distract you from the far more important story of how health insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid came to be.

Now seems like a good point to remedy that shortcoming in my speech to you today.

I’m Gary Votour. I have lived here in Columbia, SC for the last six years. Although I am disabled, I volunteer my time as a personal health care advocate. As a Christian, I follow the teachings of my savior, Jesus Christ. I follow my calling to help my fellow men and women when they are dealing with complex medical issues by helping them prepare for life-threatening treatments. I assist them in getting second opinions, understanding informed consent, assigning health care proxies and preparing living wills.

It may seem to be an unusual calling to some of you, but I believe sometimes the Lord shapes our lives according to his plan for us and we are then called to follow His plan. He certainly has for me.

Over a decade ago, my first wife and I lived in Massachusetts. She was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer, and a high-risk surgery to arrest its development went horribly wrong.

Strokes during the surgeries left her almost completely paralyzed and in constant pain for the rest of her life. After 6 months in 3 different hospitals, we were fortunate enough to return to our rural home where she struggled to continue living in spite of what happened.

After 30 months of ICU level home care, she gave up and stopped eating and drinking. I held her hand as she took her last breath after nearly 30 years together.

Throughout the hospitalization and home care period, I never left her side. Her strength and determination inspired me to dedicate my life to helping others. After she died, I returned to school, obtained a Masters Degree in Health Care Administration and became the advocate for others I am today.

When her surgery went badly, her employer terminated her. For eighteen months, the Massachusetts Medicaid program, called MassHealth, reimbursed us for the COBRA payments needed to keep her private insurance. MassHealth also paid for virtually everything not covered by her HMO. This included visiting nurse visits several times a week, home care supplies, physical therapy, and most importantly funding for the staff we needed at home to help me care for her. A special program funded by MassHealth paid for 90 hours of staff weekly, that we could hire locally and train. Without MassHealth, her care at home would not have been possible.

After the 18 month COBRA period ended, her HMO would not insure her. Her “pre-existing” condition gave them the right to deny her coverage. Medicare became her primary insurer, and MassHealth continued to fund what they did not cover.

We were fortunate enough to be in the only state in the country that had adopted such a progressive Medicaid program. This was because our state legislation had passed what was known as Romneycare, named for our Republican governor Mitt Romney. That is the program, as I am sure you know, that the ACA was modeled after for the entire nation.

If we lived in South Carolina today, and this happened to us, the outcome for my wife would have been very different. Because this state has not expanded and strengthened their Medicaid program under the ACA, caring for my wife at home would have been nearly impossible. The best care we could have hoped for here would result in her being warehoused and left to die in a nursing home, with a standard of care far less than what we were able to provide for her at home.

Even that meager care for her likely shortened life would most certainly have meant foreclosure on our home and bankruptcy for me before she would have been eligible for any Medicaid assistance once her COBRA protected insurance ran out.

After the ACA was passed, I hoped that every state would expand their programs using the freely available funding provides by the ACA.

Unfortunately, a six-year political struggle between liberals and conservatives decided otherwise in 19 states, including the one I know call home.

The originally partisan ACA became a victim to political battles, and thousands of people, likely tens of thousands, have already died as a result in those states that did not expand Medicaid to cover their working poor.

Just a few weeks ago the Republican Party attempted to honor the current president’s campaign promise to repeal and replace the ACA with something they called the American Health Care Act (AHCA). I just call it NoCare, because that’s all it would have given anyone.

Put together in secret, literally written in the Congressional basement over a couple of weeks, the AHCA tried to tie together both the moderate and extremely conservative elements of the GOP in order to get the votes needed to move it forward without the support of a minority liberal congress.

NoCare included changes to the law that would allow insurers to charge extra for those who may have preexisting conditions. No one should lose their insurance when they become ill or are dying. The ACA made it mandatory that insurers offer affordable insurance to all, regardless of their medical condition.

Also, Medicaid is a vital program designed to protect all of us in times of trouble, whether it be financial or medical. We all know that if the presidential election was decided by popular vote, the 19 remaining states would likely now be expanding their programs to do more for the poor, not less.

Yet the GOP NoCare replacement would have instituted flat funded block grants for Medicaid that would have caused the eventual destruction of the program, as State’s would be forced to ration care to the needy.

They would have, in effect, been creating the mythical Obamacare “death panels” people theorized about years ago, but they would have been at the state level as they are forced to do less and less for the poor into the future.

When the initial draft of NoCare failed to garner enough support from the extremely conservative Freedom Caucus, they even proposed stripping out the essential health benefits required for all insurance by the ACA, even for insurance provided by employers. This would have left most of our country under the control of for-profit insurers, who would certainly have worked together to plunder those benefits away from everyone.

We must stay vigilant and pressure our elected representative to end the forward progress of the NoCare plan, no matter what form it comes back in.

We must force it to be tabled, not amended. When they renew their efforts to pass it again, and they will, we must demand that it be removed immediately from legislative consideration until both Democrats and Republicans can sit together and craft legislation that guarantees no one will be denied their right to insurance because of illness or income.

We must ensure that Medicaid programs in all 50 states are strengthened, not diminished. We must continue to create incentives for the remaining states to expand coverage, not reward them for allowing their citizens to die needlessly.

We have a unique opportunity to show everyone that America is indeed the most merciful nation on the planet. As President Kennedy said in 1961, “Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, State, and local, must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their grave trust and their great responsibilities.”

Instead of embracing the slogan “Make America Great Again” let us agree that America is already a great country that can afford to do better for those who have less.

We can, indeed we must, do better.

A national health care plan is an option that is progressive and builds on our success as a country that believes in equality. Whether it be a Medicare for All shift away from private insurers OR a Public Option to let anyone who chooses to buy a Medicare policy OR an income based subsidized replacement for Medicaid… It should be up to us, the American people, to decide how we will interpret that constitutional mandate was written so long ago that has served us so well until now. Life. Liberty. Happiness. And now, health care. These must be our demands!

And if our elected government fails to listen, if they fail to do what we, the voters demand of them… we must then speak even louder at the voting booth.

Thank you!

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