Republican senator calls health care, food, and shelter a ‘privilege’

Wisconsin Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Scott Bauer)

When asked by a high school student in Wisconsin whether he considered health care a right or a privilege, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) compared access to health care to access to food and shelter, arguing that all three should be considered “privileges” for those who can afford them.

“I think it’s probably more of a privilege,” Johnson said in response to the question. “Do you consider food a right? Do you consider clothing a right? Do you consider shelter a right? What we have as rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We have the right to freedom. Past that point, everything else is a limited resource that we have to use our opportunities given to us so that we can afford those things.”


Johnson then went on to argue that the role of elected officials is not to guarantee everyone a right to health care, but to grow the economy so that more people can afford access to health care. He also referred to comments made by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) in 2011, when Paul compared the right to health care to “slavery.”

Of the 25 wealthiest nations in the world, the United States is the only country not to recognize health care as a right, providing some measure of universal health care to their residents. A growing number of Democratic lawmakers have begun embracing single-payer health care, which would cover the costs of health care for all Americans, essentially creating universal health care. Among those supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) Medicare for All bill, many mention the concept that health care should be a right granted to U.S. residents.

Republican lawmakers, however, have focused on deep cuts to Medicaid in every iteration of a repeal-and-replace bill that they have introduced in Congress since Trump took office in January. The American Health Care Act, which passed in the House before stalling in the Senate, included serious cuts to Medicaid programs over the next ten years — and the Senate version deepened those cuts.

The most recent version of the Republican’s repeal-and-replace bill, known as the Graham-Cassidy bill, failed to garner enough votes for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring it to the floor for a vote. The bill would have repealed the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies and Medicaid expansion programs and replaced federal subsidies with block grants given to states. Ultimately, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that millions more people would be without health insurance under the plan.

Johnson has been a staunch proponent of Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, supporting replacement bills that would slash the requirement that insurance companies not discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions. In an interview in June of this year, Johnson compared people with pre-existing conditions to drivers that have been in a car accident, arguing that the Affordable Care Act’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions is tantamount to requiring auto insurers to sell insurance to people that have crashed their car. Unlike car accidents, however, people with pre-existing conditions often have little control over their illnesses.

Johnson told NPR earlier this week that if the Graham-Cassidy bill failed in the Senate, that Republican lawmakers were willing to use the budget reconciliation process to pass a repeal-and-replace bill, which would only require 50 votes in the Senate. That would require the Senate as a whole, however, to pass a budget that allows for health care issues to be tied to fiscal goals — a distinction that allows the Senate to take up health care as a budget issue.