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Every American should have access to quality, affordable health care.

This is not a controversial claim. Almost everyone, on the right and left of the political spectrum, can agree with this statement. However, recently it has become fashionable to proclaim that health care access isn’t just something we should strive for, it’s a human right. Unfortunately, those who oppose this statement have been branded as hateful and uncaring.

Before one reflexively endorses the notion that health care is a right, he or she should think carefully about the meaning of these words and their possible application.

A right is a moral or legal entitlement to have or do something. Under this definition of a “moral” right, universal access to health care is an ideal, and one we should all work for. As an ideal, it is neither controversial nor legally binding.

If health care providers are legally obligated to provide health care, then the providers of that health care must do it. If providers are granted the right to refuse without some sort of condition being met, such as receiving payment for their services, then there really is no “entitlement” for those seeking health care, and thus no right to health care.

In other words, it’s not possible to argue that receiving health care and having the ability to choose to refuse to work without a wage determined by the worker are both rights. The concepts are mutually exclusive. Either people don’t have a legal entitlement to the services of a health care provider, or they are entitled and, consequently, health care providers lose the right to control their own labor.

Dealing with health care as a right is only part of the problem. It’s also vital to define health care and remember that the definition of health care is not set in stone; some people define health care in ways that are very broad.

For example, I have many patients that receive massages on a regular basis. Massages are wonderful and relaxing. These patients vehemently claim that the massages are essential parts of their health care regiment and that they help them treat a variety of issues. Perhaps this is all true.

If this is considered part of a health care right, and if we assume that those who claim it to be a right mean that the government must pay for it, we must consider how the government gets the money to pay for it. Government receives most of its funds by taxing individuals and businesses. If you don’t pay your taxes, the government can eventually confiscate your assets. It is thus plausible that the government could end up confiscating a person’s car (to which you, under this way of thinking, do not have a right), to pay for another’s massage (which would be considered a right).

Sadly, if government were to become the sole payer of this “right,” the definition of those rights would be defined not by the individual but by the government agencies against whom so many protest.

In some single-payer systems in which people are told they have health care as a right, these same people are deprived of private payment options for non-covered health care services, at which time they might find that instead of having been provided with new rights, they have actually lost them.

Chad Savage, M.D. is a policy fellow at the Docs 4 Patient Care Foundation and the founder of the DPC practice YourChoice Direct Care in Brighton, Michigan.

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