The ACA and the Medicaid Ruling: Let’s Remember that Health Care is a Human Right

The Supreme Court has ruled that the Affordable Care Act may stand, but in light of international laws on the human right to health and health care, the United States has an obligation to do much more.

On June 28, the United States Supreme Court announced its ruling on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). Now widely known as “Obamacare,” the act was signed into law two years ago, expanding health care coverage for millions of previously uninsured people. The Court has ruled that the central provision under examination – the individual mandate, or the requirement that individuals purchase health insurance – is, in fact, constitutional.

While the court has upheld the right of millions of young people in the US to be covered under their parents’ insurance, and the right of millions more with pre-existing conditions to be covered in the event of illness, it has weakened the Medicaid provision which would have expanded coverage to millions of people living at or below the poverty line.

In the hurry by news organizations to cover the decision yesterday, this may all seem like political theater. But the US has a clear and crucial responsibility under international law to guarantee its peoples’ right to health and health care.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to a healthy life, including access to food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services; the United Nations adopted these principles in 1948.

The US has also signed international laws and treaties guaranteeing more specific rights to our most vulnerable citizens. The US signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, in 1980, which includes Articles 12 and 14 upholding women’s right to health care services. At a time when health care services specifically for women are under unprecedented assault at the state level and women’s health care providers are being threatened and harassed, it seems impossible that we could ever have been even that committed to ensuring women’s access to comprehensive health and reproductive care.

In 1995, the US signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which asserts in Article 24 that every child have access to the highest attainable standard of health and for “States Parties [to] strive to ensure that no child is deprived of his or her right of access to such health care services.” Our government’s ongoing fights over funding health care for economically disadvantaged children through the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) are just another example of the many ways in which our human right to a healthy life continues to be used as a political volleyball.

These treaties reveal a longstanding global recognition of the human right to health. We must evaluate the Supreme Court’s ruling in light of this significant body of international law: an important step forward, but only one step on a long journey towards full human rights for all.

For information about MADRE’s international work for health as a human right, click here.