People will die without access to healthcare
© Getty Images

Take a moment to consider some remarks made recently by House Republicans:  

  • "Nobody dies because they don't have access to healthcare."
  • Poor people “just don’t want healthcare and aren’t going to take care of themselves.” 
  • “Rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to spend hundreds of dollars on, maybe they should invest in their own health care.”

Sometimes, people make regrettable statements based on ignorance or lack of personal experience. But do we really believe that is the case here? Who among us has never had a loved one touched by cancer? Don’t we all know someone whose life was saved because they had the right test at the right moment?  Isn’t good health at the top of everyone’s wish list?

These statements were not just unfortunate slips of the tongue. Instead, the statements are a window into a broader ideology based on the belief that people are deserving of healthcare, happiness – and even life – only if they can afford it. 

I served as an emergency physician for 10 years. Here’s what I know beyond a shadow of a doubt:

First, thousands of Americans die because they don’t have access to health care. That’s a fact.  I have seen this far too many times. Just one example is the 55-year-old woman who came into my ER with vaginal bleeding. Because she didn’t have health insurance, she never had a pap smear.  It turned out she had advanced cervical cancer, and she died five months later. She died because she didn’t have access to healthcare.

Second, as a civilized society, our standard has to be higher than whether or not someone died.  Being forced to the edge of death because you don’t have access to healthcare is indecent and inhumane.  I have seen countless patients in my ER because they couldn’t afford Lasix, a medicine that prevents fluid retention in people with congestive heart failure.  They were literally drowning in their own bodily fluids.  As a matter of policy, do we really want to say that is acceptable?

Third, it is degrading and offensive – and just plain wrong – to say that some groups of people, just because they are not wealthy, put a lower value on their own lives and health.  Every ER doctor will tell you about patients with a history of a mild stroke who stopped taking their Coumadin because they couldn’t afford it.  Many of them ended up in ERs after having a larger stroke, often paralyzed for life.  How can anyone suggest they deliberately chose that path because they didn’t care about their health?

Finally, it’s simply false that ERs are an acceptable or cost efficient way of providing primary healthcare – that is not their intended purpose. Anyone who has ever spent time in an ER as either a patient or a relative of a patient knows that. If your only option for receiving healthcare requires you to wait for hours while surrounded by people in cardiac arrest or victims of automobile accidents and gunshot wounds, you’ll do what most people without health coverage do: forego care until there truly is an emergency. And many of those people will die because they didn’t get the care when they needed it.

In trying to defend his comment above, one House Republican said he was simply responding to “a false notion that the Republican health care plan will cause people to die in the streets.”  The problem is, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.  People will die in their homes, in ambulances, and in the ER because they don’t have healthcare coverage.  I know that because I’ve seen it.

The grotesquely misnamed American Health Care Act isn’t just about taxes, government regulation, and economic prosperity.  Instead, it’s the manifestation of an ideology that defines who among us is most worthy… that people are deserving of good health only if they can afford it… and therefore some people have a greater right to live.  Those quotes at the top of this article weren’t misstatements. They are the expression of that ideology. And that’s what’s so incomprehensible about the Republican health care plan.    

Ruiz represents California's 36th District and serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee. 

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.