READ: Why Health Care is a Civil Right

By Kenrya Rankin Jun 28, 2017

Facing a lack of support, Senate leaders announced yesterday that the Republican-led body will wait until after July 4 to vote on the Better Care Reconciliation Act. As the world waits to see if Congress will take health insurance away from at least 22 million people, The Atlantic writer Vann R. Newkirk II breaks down the historical and current parallels between the fight for health care and the war against racial inequality.

In “The Fight for Health Care Has Always Been About Civil Rights,” published yesterday (June 27), Newkirk, writes about what he calls a “forgotten pillar of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Speaking to a packed, mixed-race crowd of physicians and health-care workers in Chicago, [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.] gave one of his most influential late-career speeches, blasting the American Medical Association and other organizations for a “conspiracy of inaction” in the maintenance of a medical apartheid that persisted even then in 1966.

There, King spoke words that have since become a maxim: “Of all the inequalities that exist, the injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhuman.” In the moment, it reflected the work that King and that organization, the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR), were doing to advance one of the since-forgotten pillars of the Civil Rights Movement: the idea that health care is a right. To those heroes of the civil-rights movement, it was clear that the demons of inequality that have always haunted America could not be vanquished without the establishment and protection of that right. …

Just as the ACA’s defenders find themselves between a once-in-a-generation victory and a potential equally devastating loss, so the MCHR found themselves in 1966. King delivered his address just months after breakthroughs a century in the making. In the height of the movement in the early ’60s that brought sweeping changes in voting rights, integration and education, civil rights actors had also won major victories in a push for universal health care. Chief among those victories were two of the defining pieces of 20th century American policy: the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.

Newkirk goes on to talk about how the Obama Administration’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) bolsters the lived experiences of people of color:

People of color were the most likely groups to gain coverage and access to care under the ACA, and in the centuries-old struggle over health, they have never been closer both to racial equality of, access and to, the federal protection of health care as a civil right. But if Republicans have their way, that dream will be deferred. …

Even though the ACA isn’t a single-payer or universal system, it did a better job than the status quo ante at ensuring some sort of access to care. According to J. Nadine Gracia, the former deputy assistant secretary for minority health and the director of the Office of Minority Health at [the Department of Health and Human Services]—positions and an office that were themselves reauthorized and expanded by Obamacare—the ACA’s benefits were immediately realized in communities of color. “The Affordable Care Act is the most important law to help reduce health disparities since the passage Medicare and Medicaid,” Gracia said, “because the law is addressing issues of access, affordability and quality of care, which have all been obstacles and barriers that relate to the health of minorities.”

Newkirk writes that many health organizations and civil rights advocates have come out against Trumpcare, arguing that it will reverse those gains.

There is a broad consensus among health organizations (now including the AMA), former officials like [former Surgeon General David] Satcher, and the former titans of the civil-rights movement that the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) in the Senate and the American Health Care Act (AHCA), its sister bill in the House, will move America away from eliminating racial inequalities in health and health care. In addition to changes in private insurance that will make plans less comprehensive and less useful for sicker and poorer people—within which people of color are overrepresented—the BCRA also eliminates the ACA’s Medicaid expansion to low-income adults and constrains the underlying Medicaid program to the point where in the future states will have no choice but to cover fewer people.

In essence, the BCRA not only erases the ACA’s market-oriented experiment in health equity, but also strikes a blow at the previously established elements of “socialized medicine” that were longtime objectives of the civil-rights movement. In this—as is true of other civil-rights victories that were the bedrock of the 50s and 60s liberation movement, like education and voting rights—a central tenet of American freedom now finds itself in danger of simply vanishing. The country cannot follow through on its commitment to equal protection for life and liberty under the law without addressing fundamental inequalities in mortality.

Read the full article over on The Atlantic’s website.