The Elusive Right to Health Care under U.S. Law

New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 372, No. 26, 2015

Posted: 13 Oct 2016

See all articles by Jennifer Prah Ruger

Jennifer Prah Ruger

University of Pennsylvania

Theodore Ruger

University of Pennsylvania Law School

George J. Annas

Boston University School of Public Health

Date Written: June 25, 2015


Is there a right to health care in the United States? No U.S. Supreme Court decision has ever interpreted the Constitution as guaranteeing a right to health care for all Americans. The Constitution does not contain the words “health,” “health care,” “medical care,” or “medicine.” But if we look deeper, a more nuanced picture emerges. The Court has found rights to privacy,to bodily integrity, and to refuse medical care within the vague right to “due process” contained in the Constitution. The Court has also constructed a right to decide to terminate a pregnancy, although it has also ruled that the government has no obligation to subsidize the exercise of this right. When this line of cases is considered together, it would appear that the U.S. Constitution provides scant affirmative obligation to provide health care.

Despite the absence of a universal right to health care in the Constitution, Congress and the Supreme Court have incrementally crafted an incomplete web of health care rights during the past 50 years. In prisons and emergency rooms across the country, physicians and medical institutions have for decades been required to provide medical care. In a 1976 landmark decision in Estelle v. Gamble, for example, the Supreme Court found a right to adequate medical care for prisoners grounded in the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

To locate federal protection of a more universal right to health care, one must look past the judicial branch to the rights created by Congress. Through its core constitutional authorities to tax and spend and to regulate commerce, Congress may enact statutes that establish and define the rights of individuals to receive health care regardless of their ability to pay. In 1986 Congress did just that, passing the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), guaranteeing at least a modicum of medical attention for all who arrive at an emergency department in a hospital that accepts Medicare. Congress similarly operationalized an incremental health care rights framework in establishing Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and most recently the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).

These statutes create an incomplete set of rights that reflect the inconsistency at the core of U.S. health care policymaking. Some programs, such as Medicare and EMTALA, are federal, and others, such as Medicaid, are federally subsidized and state-based, but all remain incomplete. Medicaid is rife with dramatic variation from state to state and from one needy group to another. For Medicare, there are geographic variations in payment levels, and Medicare does not include nursing home care or other long-term care. Courts have construed EMTALA, which includes only emergency care and care for women in active labor, to permit diverse levels of care in different hospitals. On the eve of the ACA’s passage, the panoply of rights to health care in the United States could accurately be described as incomplete and incremental, with considerable gaps and shortfalls. The ACA and the subsequent 2012 Supreme Court decision upholding most of its provisions represent substantial but incomplete steps toward operationalizing a more robust and complete right to health care. They also highlight our inconsistent framework of health care rights.

Suggested Citation

Prah Ruger, Jennifer and Ruger, Theodore and Annas, George J., The Elusive Right to Health Care under U.S. Law (June 25, 2015). New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 372, No. 26, 2015. Available at SSRN:

Jennifer Prah Ruger (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania ( email )

Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

Theodore Ruger

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

George J. Annas

Boston University School of Public Health ( email )

School of Public Health
715 Albany Street
Boston, MA 02118
United States
(617) 638-4626 (Phone)
(617) 414-1464 (Fax)

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