Health care a right or a privelege
Written by Jeffrey R. Waggoner, MD   

Imagine walking across the parking lot of your supermarket. You come upon a man rolling around in agony, clutching his chest. Through teeth clenched in pain, he says, “An elephant! There is an elephant sitting on my chest.”

You step over him, muttering to your spouse, “Must be having a heart attack. Interesting. I’ve never heard anyone actually say that. The books use it as a classic complaint, but to actually hear it? Interesting. But how crass to collapse here, in the middle of the parking lot.”

You continue into the supermarket to buy your organic vegetables, angry at the man’s having inconvenienced you but not particularly concerned about his plight.

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Sounds silly, doesn’t it? It is silly. A person having a heart attack will rarely have to moan more than once before someone else will dial 911. An ambulance will arrive. With lights flashing, it will carry the fellow and the elephant on his chest to an emergency room. There, he will be evaluated and treated. If needed, he will be admitted for further care.

In all likelihood, until he is stabilized, no one will ask the victim about his job, his bank balance, or his medical insurance. Americans do not want to watch other Americans suffer, regardless of their financial status.

As a matter of fact, America has legislated its distaste for watching suffering. There is a federal law guaranteeing everyone emergency room care and hospital admission should that care necessitate it. We do not want to step over bodies in parking lots.

This means that the argument about health care being a right has already been decided. In America, health care is a right. The law making it so is on the books. Arguing about whether we should embrace universal care and whether health care is a right—or just a privilege—is silly. These questions have already been decided.

To argue they have not been decided demands that Americans be willing to expunge the law guaranteeing emergency room treatment. To expunge this law demands that Americans be willing to step over bodies in parking lots. Until that happens, any argument about health care being a right instead of a privilege is, to quote Shakespeare, “a sound and fury signifying nothing.” There is a law prohibiting people from backing out of their driveways at a speed of eighty miles-per-hour. This law is a reflection of a societal concern about being flattened by your neighbor while you fetch the morning paper.

There is a law prohibiting emergency rooms from turning away people having heart attacks. This law is a reflection of... a reflection of...

What exactly is this law a reflection of? Is it a level of societal concern for the welfare of all its members? Or, is it a reflection of societal concern about the discomfort caused by having to step over bodies in parking lots? 

This is the important health care question that remains undecided:

            Is it suffering we loathe or having to see it?

About the Author

J.R. Waggoner, M.D. practiced family medicine for thirty years in Aurora, Colorado. He also worked as a consultant and herded cats as the managing general partner of a general partnership of physicians. Three years ago, he left his practice to study health care policy and write. During his time away from clinical work, he has written two books and worked as a Senior Clinical Content Specialist and freelance writer.

His current book Medical Metamorphosis: The three step cure for America's health care crisis is available at

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