Lives in the Balance

Part V: Achieving Affordable Healthcare as our Civil Right


Most Americans recoiled in horror and disgust as the Republican Senate majority, following in lock-step with their House Republican colleagues, forced party-line votes on repeated proposals that, if enacted into law, would deny affordable healthcare to 15 million, 18 million, 22 million, or even 32 million of our citizens.

No Democratic member of either the Senate or the House of Representatives supported these legislative attacks upon the Affordable Care Act (the ACA or ObamaCare).   Indeed, Democrats have been doing all that we can to preserve and expand the healthcare that Americans of every background should receive.

The ultimate outcome of our struggle to protect and expand access to health care has critical significance to all Americans.  Indeed, the very breadth and depth of the consequences for our nation may cloud, for some, the reality that we are engaged in a long-standing and central battle for our civil rights.

Elijah Cummings

Justice in access to health care was not an afterthought in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.  It was a central objective, a centrality that was well understood by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders of that time.

In March of 1966, challenging the political and medical establishment of this country, Dr. King argued that health disparities arising from a system of medical apartheid are inconsistent with the values and future of this nation as a united society.

“Of all the inequalities that exist,” Dr. King declared, “the injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhuman.”

Tragically, Dr. King’s challenge remains acutely relevant today – and it must continue to drive our movement toward universal civil rights.

Our civil rights movement to save more lives is central to every American.  Nevertheless, as in every area in which our nation has yet to live up to our national creed of liberty and justice for all, achieving universal health care is especially important to those of us who are Americans of Color.

No legislation since Medicare and Medicaid were enacted in the 1960s has done more to reduce minority health disparities than the Affordable Care Act and its expansion of Medicaid.  Likewise, no group of Americans would be more harmed by repeal of the ACA than the minorities of our society, our elderly, disabled and poor.

President Trump and his Republican colleagues in the Congress promised America to replace ObamaCare with legislation that would expand access to care at lower cost to everyone.

Yet, as their proposals in the House and Senate have demonstrated, they are failing to fulfill that promise – even as they have threatened the lives of tens of millions of their countrymen and women.

It is hardly difficult to understand, therefore, why opinion polls make it clear that Americans are soundly rejecting these Republican attacks upon their access to affordable care.

This public rejection of the Republicans’ repeal plans (including the so called “skinny repeal” proposal that would have destabilized the individual health insurance markets, caused substantial loss of coverage and harmed millions of Americans) should encourage my Republican colleagues to return to a more bipartisan process.

“Congress should be working to make health insurance more affordable, while stabilizing the health insurance market,” Maryland Governor Hogan and a bipartisan group of his colleagues have written to Senate leaders.

Now, Governor Hogan and I have not always agreed on matters of policy for our state.  However, on this fundamental civil rights issue, we and the bipartisan governors agree.

Hopefully, now that the Senate Republicans’ “repeal” effort has been blocked, at least for the present, the Congress will work together to improve the Affordable Care Act for everyone.

Partisanship has failed.  Only bipartisan cooperation and compromise can succeed.

Americans are calling upon their elected representatives to achieve a health care system that is affordable for everyone.  They understand and agree that protecting their families against injury and disease is a federal responsibility – a duty just as essential to them as defending our nation against foreign attack.

We sometimes forget that the civil rights advances of the 1960s were bipartisan accomplishments for which our nation is justly proud.

If, once again, we can rise above partisanship, we can confirm health care as our civil right today.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.