“Five years ago, after nearly a century of talk, decades of trying, a year of bipartisan debate, we finally declared that in America, health care is not a privilege for a few but a right for all.” These words from President Barack Obama after the US Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act’s subsidy provisions last week echo the many times this president and his cabinet members have referred to health care as a basic human right. Yet for the second time in three years, expanded access to health care in the United States hung precariously in the balance.  

An outreach team from Unity Of Greater New Orleans counsels a homeless man on housing options, January 2011.

© 2011 AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

With so much at stake for Americans, the Senate should finally vote to ratify the international treaty that protects the right to health.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognizes everyone’s right to the “highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” This does not mean that everyone has a right to be healthy, but that governments are obligated to take steps toward ensuring that health care is available and accessible to all, and meets minimum standards of quality.

The right doesn’t guarantee free care for every ailment, either. Rather, governments need to develop and implement public health prevention and healthcare plans consistent with their available resources. Services have to be provided without discrimination on the basis of race, gender, origin, and other prohibited grounds, including disability. Making healthcare accessible includes making services affordable to all, particularly poorer and socially disadvantaged households.

The treaty has been ratified by 164 countries, including Japan, China, Australia, every country in Europe, and throughout the developed world. In 1976, President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty, but the Senate has not given its consent, leaving the US to stand with Cuba, Burma, Singapore, Haiti, and 27 other countries, many with records on human rights and health care that Human Rights Watch has strongly criticized.  

Ratification would strengthen the right to health in the US by helping courts to interpret local, state, and federal laws relating to medical care, insurance, and non-discrimination. Periodic reviews would increase accountability for US health policy and practice. Perhaps most important, ratification would send a clear message at home and around the globe that no matter who is president or who sits on the Supreme Court, the US has a continuing commitment to uphold the right to health.