The Ambiguity of the Term “Universal Healthcare”
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.