On the morning of October 7th, 2009, I suffered a one-minute seizure that broke some of the bones in my back, strained my spine, and tore my right shoulder out of its socket. Given the seriousness of the injuries that I sustained, I was rushed to Mass. General Hospital.
I don’t remember any of the above — but I do remember being relieved that I was at MGH once I became aware of what was going on, because I knew that I’d be getting arguably the best medical care in the world to fix my injuries. Just taking in the scene of doctors and nurses looking after me, I felt extremely relieved to live in Massachusetts and have access to such excellent health care.
The reason I had access to this care was, of course, because I am lucky enough to have comprehensive health care through the state GIC, which would cover the three surgeries, extended care, and rehab necessary for me to recover from my injuries. It is impossible to overstate what peace of mind this gave me, my family and loved ones.
But what about those patients at MGH, and across the country, who don’t have health insurance as comprehensive as mine, or health insurance at all? What peace of mind is there for their families at an incredibly difficult time?
As a patient, I wanted to be sure I would receive the highest quality medical care possible, and that I would be able to enjoy the same basic quality of life I had before my injury. And of course my fellow patients at MGH, many of whom were less well-off than I was, had the same hopes and expectations.
But as I lay in bed, knowing that I was lucky enough to have excellent health insurance that would cover my treatment, I couldn’t help but thinking over and over about those who weren’t so lucky.
I’ve been a strong proponent of a “Medicare for All” health care system since first joining the Massachusetts Legislature seven years ago. I believe a single-payer system like this will best achieve the health care reform goals that many of us share, from providing health care coverage for the uninsured to improving coverage for current health insurance members, reducing health care costs, and simplifying the country’s health care delivery system.
But over the past month, as I have been focused on health care as a patient, rather than as an elected official, I’ve become more and more convinced that any health care reform we make – single payer or otherwise – must start with the agreement that access to quality health care should be a right in this country.
There is a basic quality of care we all deserve when we are sick or injured. Yet without establishing health care as a right, there is no guarantee that every other Massachusetts citizen would be treated like I have been. In fact, absence government intervention, there are strong market, financial, and societal incentives that make it highly likely that no basic standard of treatment will exist.
As a society, we all benefit when individual members have access to quality health care. In my case, had I not received the right treatment within a relatively short amount of time, my life would have been changed dramatically, limiting my ability to be the most productive citizen that I could possibly be, and my ability to contribute to society, .
It’s the same for anyone else in a similar situation: good health care improves productivity, and the lack of it worsens the quality of life for each of us.
In the United States, within the basic framework of positive and negative rights found in our U.S. or state constitutions, the establishment of a right ensures that regardless of a person’s background (economic circumstances, race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), he or she is able to freely access certain services from the government. In Massachusetts, this ranges from the right to free speech and assembly to the right to public education, with guaranteed equal treatment of all people by the government.
The facts that I have excellent health insurance, live in a state that has long prioritized health care towards its citizens and that is home to the best doctors and nurses in the country, and have a job that provides paid sick leave to allow me the time to properly recover without falling into deep economic insecurity all but guarantees I will make the best recovery possible (in my case, a full recovery). However, not every Massachusetts resident – and certainly not every American – is as fortunate as I am.
Until we define health care as a right, there will continue to be Americans like those I have met over the past month, whose lives will be irreversibly thrown off-track by an accident or illness, whose financial insecurity will lead to greater physical problems, whose lives will be changed forever because they lacked access to quality health care.
I can think of few other instances of government assistance that would have as dramatic an impact on people’s lives as a right to health care, and that would make every community richer.