Health Law as Social Justice
60 Pages Posted: 18 Jan 2015
Date Written: February 16, 2014
Health law is in the midst of a dramatic transformation. From a relatively narrow discipline focused on regulating relationships among individual patients, health care providers, and third-party payers, it is expanding into a far broader field with a burgeoning commitment to access to health care and assurance of healthy living conditions as matters of social justice. Through a series of incremental reform efforts stretching back decades before the Affordable Care Act and encompassing public health law as well as the law of health care financing and delivery, reducing health disparities has become a central focus of American health law and policy. This Article labels, describes, and furthers a nascent “health justice” movement by examining what it means to view health law as an instrument of social justice. Drawing on the experiences of the reproductive justice, environmental justice, and food justice movements, and on the writings of political philosophers and ethicists on health justice, I propose that health justice offers an alternative to the market competition and patient rights paradigms that currently dominate health law scholarship, advocacy, and reform. I then examine the role of law in reducing health disparities through the health justice lens. I argue that the nascent health justice framework suggests three commitments for the use of law to reduce health disparities. First, to a broader inquiry that views access to health care as one among many social determinants of health deserving of public attention and resources. Second, to probing inquiry into the effects of class, racial, and other forms of social and cultural bias on the design and implementation of measures to reduce health disparities. And third, to collective action grounded in community engagement and participatory parity. In exploring these commitments, I highlight tensions within the social justice framework and between the social justice framework and the nascent health justice movement. These tensions illustrate, rather than undermine, the power of viewing health law as social justice. They raise important questions that should prompt more fruitful and rigorous thinking within health law activism and scholarship and with regard to the relationships between law and social justice more broadly.
Keywords: health law, environmental justice, reproductive justice, food justice, health justice, health care, public health
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