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J Law Med Ethics. 2011 Fall;39(3):340-54. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-720X.2011.00604.x.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, public health, and the elusive target of human rights.

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Wayne State University Law School, USA.


The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) sets in motion a wide range of programs that substantially affected the health system in the United States and signify a moderate but important regulatory shift in the role of the federal government in public health. This article briefly addresses two interesting policy paradoxes about the ACA. First, while the legislation primarily addresses health care financing and insurance and establishes only a few initiatives directly targeting public health, the ACA nevertheless has the potential to produce extensive public health benefits across the United States population by improving access to health care and services and reducing cost. Essentially, the ACA does not take the explicit form of a public health law but instead strives to advance public health indirectly through its effects. Second, while the ACA does not establish a right to health - or even a right to health insurance - in the United States, it does set in motion a number of significant structural and normative changes to United States law that comport with the attainment of the right to health. Most significantly, key provisions of the bill are designed to improve availability, accessibility, acceptability, and quality of conditions necessary for health, and to prompt the government to respect, protect, and fulfill these conditions. These developments mean that, to a degree, the United States essentially has undertaken the same types of legal and policy steps that a country would be required to take to uphold the right to health without actually recognizing the right to health in any formal or legally binding way. Despite these dual paradoxes and the upside potential for public health improvements resulting from the ACA, the public health impact of the law remains uncertain and will be decided by numerous subsequent regulatory and implementation decisions. The ACA authorizes multiple federal agencies to engage in rulemaking, a process that will largely dictate the systemic and health impacts that will become its legacy. This reality opens up ample opportunity to bolster public health aspects and interpretations of the law, and to simultaneously augment the corresponding components of the right to health.

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