According to Thomas Jefferson, it's a self-evident truth that "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are "unalienable rights." But does that include the right to health care? As an inmate at Bastrop Federal Satellite Camp, I have time to ponder such a question. Then I have even more time to write about it. Such is prison life, limited liberty and pursuit of sanity. At least I can find solace in knowing that Thomas Jefferson had to confront the same question in 1801. While he certainly had less free time than me, he had a distinct advantage in knowing what he intended these words to mean.
During Jefferson's first year as President, Edward Jenner developed a vaccine in England for smallpox. When Jefferson learned of this, he had 200 of his relatives, friends and slaves vaccinated. Jefferson believed in a limited federal government, but by the time he finished his second term in 2009, it was sadly apparent that city and state governments had done little to curb smallpox with the new vaccine. So Jefferson urged his successor James Madison, also a proponent of limited federal power, to support and sign the Vaccine Act of 1813. The federal government was soon providing free vaccines for tens of thousands of Americans each year. It was the country's first universally provided heath care entitlement. I'm old enough to remember in the early 1960's a similar vaccination for polio as everyone in Winnsboro, Louisiana, lined up at the elementary school for sugar cubes containing Jonas Salk's vaccine.
So if we can infer from these actions that Jefferson and Madison deemed health care to be part of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, how do we pay for it? In Jefferson's day, the average American lived on a farm and died before age 50. Today the average American lives well past 80 and expects a higher quality of life. Even in the 1960's, when I was vaccinated for polio, few had health insurance, certainly not as a employee benefit, and there were few high cost medical specialties like today. When we got sick, we went to Rogers Clinic and paid cash, or paid when we could.
How we pay for health care is certainly above my pay grade (currently $.29/hour), but it's undeniable that when the federal government or other 3rd party payers, like insurance companies, become involved, costs rise exponentially higher than they otherwise would. That lack of involvement is one reason why laptops and televisions get better and cheaper. More to the point, it's why cosmetic and lasik surgeries get better and cheaper, too. All are directly paid for without the government or a 3rd party.
So whether we end up with Medicare for all (federal), Medicaid for all (state), healthcare.gov (mandated insurance), or Health Savings Accounts (direct pay with tax benefits), it's clear, at least to me, that healthcare is an unalienable right in America.
With whatever we end up with, I just hope it's better than this.