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The Ambiguity of the Term “Universal Healthcare”

August 21, 2008

As our election season continues (can something really be called a “season” if it lasts for two years?) much public debate is swirling around healthcare reform.  One nasty and ill-defined term is always thrown around when anyone debates healthcare–“universal healthcare.”

Despite knowing several English nerds, I’m not going to go into the etymology of the phrase “universal healthcare.”  However, I think this ambiguous term needs to be more precisely defined when applied to serious political debate regarding healthcare reform.

Why do I say “universal healthcare” is ambiguous?  Taken at face value, this phrase means health services for everyone.  “Universal”=everyone; “healthcare”=giving people medicine so they are healthier.  Given this prima facie definition, why would anyone in this country not want “universal healthcare?”  You don’t want every American to have some form of medical care if they’re sick?**

Here is the most important aspect of the precise definition of the phrase “universal healthcare”–it in no way implies any system for healthcare financing or payment structure.

Aha!  This is where the debate gets confusing.  Most people want everyone to have some form of healthcare.  Where ideologies differ is in how we pay for providing that care.  In common vernacular, we shouldn’t use the phrase “universal healthcare” but rather “single-payer system” because when Americans typically think of a country with a universal healthcare system, they are thinking of countries with single-payer systems.

So, when somebody asks you, “Do you think we should have universal healthcare?”, confidently say, “Yes!!”  Then calmly explain (hopefully with pretty diagrams) different financial structures for healthcare systems and state your case for whatever system you believe we should have.  You may also want to point out that we can achieve “universal healthcare” under our current private insurance system; we just have to figure out how to make health insurance affordable for everyone which could be accomplished through private enterprise innovation or government subsidies.

**Right here I probably lost some Libertarians and some staunch Republicans.  They probably thought, “NO!!  I don’t want every American to have healthcare unless they can pay for it without any government assistance!!”  While some people may personally hold this belief, the vast majority of Americans believe at least some level of medical care should be provided to anyone who seeks it.  The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (the infamous HIPAA law passed in 1996) made it illegal for emergency rooms to deny medical care to anyone seeking services regardless of ability to pay.  I won’t go into the nuances of this law and ways to get around its provisions, but will point out that its passage is clearly indicative of a prevailing sentiment in American society in support of some basic health services for all.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 21, 2008 9:42 pm

    This is the United State of America, land of the free. Good Healthcare is a Privilege, not a Right, but I don’t believe this is how it should be. The United State is the only country in the Industrialized world that does not provide Healthcare for their Citizens.

    Prescription Drug cost are out of control. People are having to choose between food or their Prescriptions. In general, the cost of Healthcare is out of control. I have friends that work two and three jobs in order to have Health

    Healthcare expenses cause 45 percent of personal Bankruptcies in the country. This causes Families to fall apart.


  2. Matt permalink
    August 22, 2008 12:13 pm

    Did you see the Bunk study stating 2/3 of doctors in America want National Health Care. The doctors who did this study also conducted one in 2002 and found that the majority of doctors did not want national health care, the problem with this is that the 2 question surveys drastically differ in there 2nd question. I found this article, 60% of Physicians Surveyed Oppose Switching to a National Health Care Plan, It’s worth a read.

  3. August 22, 2008 6:56 pm

    Healthcare is a Human Right!

    Physicians for National Health Program Go to

    Healthcare-now Go to

    Guaranteed Healthcare Go to

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