Are we "consuming" health care or realizing our "rights?"  The American public is ready for a new conversation; in fact, the conversation has already begun.  Are you speaking the right language to be a part of this new discussion?

In the second presidential debate last evening, Tom Brokaw asked of the two candidates a follow-up question, stemming from one woman’s question of whether health care should be treated as a commodity.  Both candidates demurred from the initial inquiry, but Brokaw pressed them on his own follow-up: "Is health care in America a privilege, a right, or a responsibility?"  What caused many of us who have been following both campaigns and their proposed health care policies to sit up in our seats was Sen. Obama’s answer, "Well, I think it should be a right for every American."  The reason to take notice isn’t that a politician answered a question directly, impressive though that is, but the much more important reason is the re-framing of an issue long discussed on both sides as a consumer good.

Talking about health care and the opportunity for good health as a right, rather than a commodity, privilege, or responsibility, is something that advocates have shied away from, for a myriad of reasons.  But poll after poll, we find that most Americans far and near all believe that health care is a right, with a majority holding health care to be a human right.  Nationally, 72 percent of Americans strongly believe that health care "should be considered a human right.”  In New York state, fully 89 percent of New Yorkers believe that health care should be a right for all New Yorkers, with 70 percent believing that the government (federal, 41%; state and local, 28%) “mainly responsible for ensuring that everyone in New York gets the health care that they need.”  Likewise, over 90 percent of Connecticut residents believe that everyone in the state deserves a right to health care.

And now, in the midst of both a presidential election and a financial crisis, we have yet more evidence that the "right to health care" language works.  During the debate, the now-infamous CNN focus group armed with real-time dial rating tools found that the line describing health care as "a right for every American" was one of his strongest of the evening.  As reported by Alternet, “When Obama discussed health care as a right for all Americans, his numbers were through the roof. At one point, female respondents were dialing in at 100 percent approval.”

If that, along with all of the previous polling, is not enough to convince you that now is the time to start talking about health care as a right, consider that the financial crisis, and the loss of Americans’ economic security, itself stems from health care concerns, something I wrote about last week.  But this week I give you a fresh example: a new article in Health Matrix, a scholarly health journal, reports that medical crises (and the resulting bills) are a cause of up to 7 out of 10 of all home foreclosures:

Our evidence suggests that medical disruptions are a major contributor to mortgage default, often striking in combination with other factors. Half of all respondents (49%) indicated that their foreclosure was caused in part by a medical problem, including illness or injuries (32%), unmanageable medical bills (23%), lost work due to a medical problem (27%), or caring for sick family members (14%). We also examined objective indicia of medical disruptions in the previous two years, including those respondents paying more than $2,000 of medical bills out of pocket (37%), those losing two or more weeks of work because of injury or illness (30%), those currently disabled and unable to work (8%), and those who used their home equity to pay medical bills (13%). Altogether, we found that about 7 in 10 of our respondents either self-reported a medical cause of foreclosure, or experienced one of these indicia of medical disruptions in the years before foreclosure.

Approaching health as a human right is powerful because it reflects our, and the American public’s values.  It is also preferable to using a consumer approach for a number of reasons.  When health is framed as a consumer good that each of us must purchase at market rates, we reinforce a competitive, individualistic mindset, and suggest that people who lack quality health care are simply poor economic competitors.  In terms of the current home foreclosure crisis, this plays into the right-wing frame that the crisis is the fault of irresponsible borrowers, a far cry from the reality where most homeowners facing foreclosure have been struck by family medical misfortune or catastrophe.   Building broad, winning support for equal access to quality health care and for addressing health disparities requires a new frame of health care as a common resource that’s stronger and fairer when we’re all in it together:  a system that works for everyone when everyone’s included and that is our right to expect and demand.

Originally posted at The State of Opportunity Blog.