The recent decision of the United States Supreme Court allowing closely held private for-profit enterprises to limit the medical benefits covered by insurance programs they sponsor for their employees on religious grounds points to one of the weaknesses of our employer-based national healthcare policy. Employer-based healthcare almost inevitably brings the right to freedom of religion into conflict with the right of citizens to healthcare on which the combined human rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” depend.
Freedom of religion and the right to healthcare are not inherently at odds. These rights are only at odds if the provision of one right prevents the free exercise of the other. In a system in which private employers can be required to violate deeply held religious beliefs in order that others be afforded the right to healthcare, the argument that such an arrangement infringes on religious liberty has some merit. At the same time, the argument that one person’s exercise of religious freedom burdens the right to healthcare excessively also has merit. In a pluralistic society, like ours, respect for widely differing points of view, both religious and secular, is an important characteristic that allows those who hold even diametrically opposed points of view to live and work together in peace avoiding the evils of theocracy, ethnocracy and other forms of divisive governance.
One of the roles of government is the protection of the rights of citizens. In the U.S., government has delegated the provision of health insurance largely to employers (with exceptions for veterans, the elderly, the poor and other vulnerable members of society). Employers and employees make contributions to private healthcare plans (insurance companies) that provide healthcare coverage for generally accepted medical needs.This situation can put some employers, and maybe even some employees, in the position of having to contribute funds for medical needs (e.g., contraception) that they regard as offensive to their religious beliefs. Delegating healthcare to the private sector, inadvertently and unnecessarily places the provision of healthcare and the assurance of religious liberty in opposition to one another.
Removing the provision of healthcare benefits from the private sector would liberate business owners and employees from having to pay directly for health benefits that, although legal, are objectionable to them on religious grounds and also provide the basis for a healthcare benefit rooted in scientific and medical data and equally available to all regardless of religious belief. No one would be forced to pay directly for a specific medical benefit. Rather, healthcare would be funded through normal taxation (with or without co-payments at the point of service). Debate about the legality of a particular medical procedure would, of course continue, but at least public health itself would move from the private to public domain liberating individuals from any undue burden on their exercise of religious liberty while at the same time ensuring the public availability of all legal medical treatment.
Public health would be funded like other public safety programs: fire, police, and numerous other programs that serve the commonweal.