Does legal status determine one’s right to health?

Recently, I have been very involved in the issue of immigrant justice and bringing forward the stories of thousands of undocumented immigrants in this country who often do not have a say in discussions about human rights. We often speak about how in a first-world country like America, we have more access to medicine and other rights than in many other parts of the world; but for undocumented people this is not always the case. In discussions of healthcare coverage in this country, despite the well-known privatized system of medical care, it is always assumed that everyone has some right to be covered because if they cannot afford private insurance they are eligible for Medicaid. Yet undocumented immigrants are not.

At a recent panel about this issue, I heard a statement that disturbed me: A son of an immigrant mother had said that the first time his mother was eligible for Medicaid was when she was pregnant with him. Because she was holding the life of a future American citizen, she became eligible to receive the healthcare benefits that this country offers. Although this law does not surprise me, I am still struck by the distinction that is made between a human with American citizenship and a human without American citizenship, and how this status determines one’s right to basic healthcare. If health is a universal human right, how come a social security number, or lack there of, determines one’s access it?

With the enforcement of anti-immigrant legislation in 2010, Nebraska passed a law that prevented undocumented women from receiving prenatal services through Medicaid programs in an effort to prevent illegal immigrants from receiving public benefits. However, this notion contradicted Nebraska’s pro-life sentiment, which encouraged covering all prenatal costs of women for the benefit of the unborn child who would in-fact be born an American citizen. This led to a controversial discussion of the right of unborn children vs. born children to healthcare. So because the child would eventually be born American, there was already discussions over the unborn child’s right to health. However, there was no discourse over the mother’s right to health, simply because she was not American? Is she not human too?

So what makes a person eligible for the right to health? Is it where they are born? Is it what legal status they have? Do they even hold this right before they are born? When we discuss access to medicine on a global scale we see clear barriers in developing countries’ accessibility to medicines and health care that have to do with trade laws, pricing, lack of infrastructure, and other factors.  But the gaps in access to medicine within the US population arise from completely different barriers that prevent certain people from their right to health even when adequate medicine and care reside just around the corner.

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3 comments
  1. Marina Erlikh said:

    In New York public hospitals, the poor, homeless, uninsured, undocumented, etc. are always eligible for emergency care, if nothing else. The state foots the bill for expensive life-saving surgeries and for long-term hospital stays. This is primarily due to the state law which prohibits public hospitals from discharging patients onto the street or into shelters- this has resulted in many of these patients staying in hospitals for extended periods of time because they have no where else to go.

    The issue that Noa raises in her post is the issue of human rights in regards to the illegal woman who becomes eligible for Medicaid and healthcare only when she is pregnant with what will become an American child. It is unfortunate that the woman’s right to health is determined by her geographic location- but the fact remains that she is here illegally, and this remains relevant in determining any of her rights in this country.

    I’ve always been proud (for lack of a better word) of our hospitals for treating every person irregardless of their ability to pay or their legal status- and for providing top-notch care (like expensive operations, transplants, etc.). But cases like these make me question if this practice is enough. Should undocumented people in the US only be eligible for care in emergency situations or should they have access to continuous healthcare? And how do we “sell” taxpayers on the latter notion?

    Here is an article from the Times about patients overstaying at hospitals for lack of any other place to go: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/03/nyregion/nowhere-to-go-patients-linger-in-hospitals-at-a-high-cost.html?pagewanted=all

  2. jewelwint said:

    It is sad that many people come to the United States everyday searching for a better life and they cannot even receive something so important as health care. You and I both agree that health is a universal right but crossing borders seems to make our hopes for obtaining this right disappear.

    Marina has left me with a heavy mind after posing the question “how do we sell taxpayers” on giving undocumented people continuous health care. I do not know the answer; it is definitely a tough question and I know that granting continuous health care to undocumented people in the United States will be even harder.

  3. It is interesting to think that the right to health care may begin prior to birth. I believe this is good because so much of the health of a pregnancy determines the health of the future baby. What is not taken into consideration is the preconception health of the mother and how this to plays a major role in the future health of the baby. I wonder if there would be an argument within this idea to extent healthcare to undocumented women who are not pregnant. However, I to feel that a social security card should not be the key to healthcare but rather being human should be what entitles one to healthcare.
    Marinas brings up a good point that in emergency rooms access to care seems to be based solely on being human. It is good that emergency rooms cannot turn away patients. However, it is also a completely inefficient practice: people come to ERs for care that could easily be treated in a doctors office and also for problems that often cannot be properly addressed in the ER, additionally the cost of care is greatly increased when provided in the ER. I believe there must be a better way to provide healthcare to everyone living in the US regardless of the legal status or ability to pay. An alternative system is also quite likely to reduce taxes and spending because it would be more efficient, have more emphasis on preventive care, and as it is unpaid for bills and treatment in the ER is a huge expense that all taxpayers are paying for.

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