Saturday, December 4, 2010

Health Care is a Human Rights Issue

By Ronald W. Pies, MD

Some see health care as a political or economic issue. They are correct, of course, on one level. But I believe that health care is fundamentally a moral issue; indeed, a matter of basic human rights. I do not believe that a nation as rich as ours (albeit with most wealth concentrated among the upper income levels) can shirk its moral responsibilities in the matter of providing basic health care for all its citizens. This doesn't mean that everybody who wants a face-lift should get one on the taxpayer's dime: I am talking about providing all citizens with the most basic health care, required to sustain life and limb. And, yes: I believe this is a right that any citizen may claim, particularly in a country purporting to be “civilized.”

I am hardly alone in this view, nor is my position new. In 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 25 of which states:

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

I don't pretend to be an expert on health care economics, and I am aware of significant logistical problems in some countries that provide health care to all their citizens; e.g., very long waiting lists for elective procedures. I am not advocating the infamous “government takeover” of health care that has been so much a part of recent political diatribes from some quarters. Rather, I favor a single-payer national health insurance system. One ambitious proposal describes this as

“...a system in which a single public or quasi-public agency organizes health financing, but delivery of care remains largely private. Under a single-payer system, all Americans would be covered for all medically necessary services, including: doctor, hospital, preventive, long-term care, mental health, reproductive health care, dental, vision, prescription drug and medical supply costs. Patients would [retain] free choice of doctor and hospital, and doctors would [retain] autonomy over patient care.” —Source: Physicians for a National Health Program

I would urge all psychiatrists to read over the FAQ section of this website. The PNHP site also notes the following:

“A number of studies (notably a General Accounting Office report in 1991 and a Congressional Budget Office report in 1993) show that there is more than enough money in our health care system to serve everyone if it were spent wisely. Administrative costs are at 31% of U.S. health spending, far higher than in other countries' systems. These inflated costs are due to our failure to have a publicly financed, universal health care system. We spend about twice as much per person as Canada or most European nations, and still deny health care to many in need. A national health program could save enough on administration to assure access to care for all Americans, without rationing.” —Source: Physicians for a National Health Program

On the specific issue of mental health care, we have a long way to go as a nation. For example, many patients with depression—particularly some minority groups—are not being provided adequate care. Contrary to the much-ballyhooed claim that “depression is over-treated” in this country, a recent study1 suggests that many Americans with clinical depression are not getting any kind of care at all. As the lead author, Hector Gonzalez, MD, put it in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, ““Few Americans with depression actually get any kind of care, and even fewer get care consistent with the [best practice] standards of care.” Gonzalez and colleagues found, in particular, that Mexican American and African American individuals meeting 12-month major depression criteria “…consistently and significantly had lower odds for any depression therapy and guideline-concordant therapies.”

In this country, according to a 2002 study by the Institute of Medicine, 18,000 Americans die every year because they don't have health insurance.3 Almost certainly, some of these individuals die by their own hand, owing to untreated major depression. This is simply unconscionable, particularly in the nation with the highest GDP in the world. Recent changes in health care coverage will improve things for many thousands of Americans,4, but much more must be done. A publicly financed, universal health care system, while not without its own costs and problems, is worth trying—and is surely preferable to our current health care debacle. It is also the right thing to do.