Where in the Constitution does it mention health care? This question has been asked by those who oppose the Affordable Care Act of 2010, which requires everyone to buy health insurance (with subsidies from the government) starting in 2014. While the constitution might not specifically mention “the right to health insurance”, it appears that the Founding Fathers of our nation did believe in government-run, mandated health care coverage.
In 1798, Congress passed “An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seaman,” which was signed by President John Adams. The law authorized the creation of a government operated system of marine hospitals and mandated a 1% tax on the pay of merchant marine sailors to support it.
I found out about this law in a column by Rick Ungar, who writes for Forbes.com. Here is some of what he wrote:
During the early years of our union, the nation’s leaders realized that foreign trade would be essential to the young country’s ability to create a viable economy. To make it work, they relied on the nation’s private merchant ships – and the sailors that made them go – to be the instruments of this trade.
The problem was that a merchant mariner’s job was a difficult and dangerous undertaking in those days. Sailors were constantly hurting themselves, picking up weird tropical diseases, etc.
Adam Rothman, an associate professor of history at Georgetown University, commented on the 1798 law for an article in the Washington Post.
“[The 1798 law] is a good example that the post-revolutionary generation clearly thought that the national government had a role in subsidizing health care,” Rothman said.
“You could argue that it’s precedent for government run health care,” Rothman continues. “This defies a lot of stereotypes about limited government in the early republic.”
Rick Ungar at Forbes.com wrote:
Keep in mind that the 5th Congress did not really need to struggle over the intentions of the drafters of the Constitutions in creating this Act as many of its members were the drafters of the Constitution.
And when the Bill came to the desk of President John Adams for signature, I think it’s safe to assume that the man in that chair had a pretty good grasp on what the framers had in mind.
If you are interested in American history, you might want to read here about the importance of Sailors’ Health and National Wealth to the economic growth of the United States. The writer, Gautham Rao, was a post-doctoral fellow in the Program for Early American Economy and Society at the Library Company of Philadelphia when he wrote the piece in 2008.