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SNEDEKER: Universal health care: Since '48, a human right

Rick Snedeker

Tiny Brunei, Bahrain and Kuwait have it. And so do Slovenia, Luxembourg, Cyprus and Iceland. You can add Germany, Canada, England and Sweden to the list, plus 21 other countries. All of them offer their citizens universal health care. The United States, on the other hand, does not.

This is not a foreign idea that doesn't affect us here in South Dakota. According to a report this year from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "Hard Times in the Heartland: Health Care in Rural America," nearly 50 million people in rural America, including the Great Plains states, have for several decades "consistently shown higher rates of poverty, mortality, uninsurance and limited access to a primary health care provider."

Nearly one in five of the country's more than 40 million uninsured -- 8.5 million people -- live in rural areas. Farmers are particularly hard-hit; a multi-state survey showed one in five insured farmers had medical debt. Rural people in general also spend more on health care out of pocket than their city brethren: About 20 percent spend more than $1,000 unreimbursed annually, and most pay significantly more than city dwellers.

This is hardly a new controversy for us, despite all the recent hubbub about "Obamacare."

On Dec. 10, 1948, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.S. declined to ratify the declaration's social and economic rights sections, including Article 25, which states: "(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection."

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) -- also derisively termed Obamacare by opponents -- proposed by the Obama administration and passed by the U.S. Congress in 2010, promised to change that and provide Americans with nearly universal health care by 2014. But legal challenges by opponents have brought the matter before the U.S. Supreme Court, and justices in recent hearings voiced a wide range of concerns about the efficacy and constitutionality of the law. So, when the court's verdict is released this summer, it's entirely possible the act may cease to exist.

A lot of Americans are happy, even ecstatic, about its possible demise, including one woman in a newspaper photo holding up a large sign that says, "Universal Health Care is immoral." How is it even remotely possible that a law seeking to make health care available to virtually all Americans -- in the land of equal opportunity for all, after all -- could be seen as morally bankrupt?

We are the only major industrialized country that doesn't offer its citizens this government service as a fundamental right. Germany, England and Canada, among many others, decided long ago that it was immoral not to offer universal health care. What's particularly indefensible in our own, very rich country is that the driving force of the opposition seems to be fear of cost, plus an abiding terror of anything that smacks of "socialism." The constitutionality charade is cynical; it's just a way to stop it. None of the outliers is asking these two questions, "Is it right that 40+ million Americans can't get health insurance?" and "If not, how can we close that gap?"

Opponents of the law seem to be saying to the unfortunate hordes of uninsured, "Tough."

It's well past time for the U.S. to go back to the future that morally responsible nations entered in 1948.

Rick Snedeker retired in August 2011 after 11 years as a writer/editor with Saudi Aramco, the national oil company of Saudi Arabia, and is now living in Alexandria with his wife. He worked as a copy editor and columnist for the Rapid City Journal from 1989 to 2000.