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I constantly hear this sort of naive remark about health care in “other major countries”, and while Chris Pope’s rejoinder below should chasten the ignorant, they won’t listen (emphasis is mine):

“[Bernie] Sanders recently argued that ‘our idea is to do what every other major country on earth is doing,’ but this claim is … fictitious. In fact, there is not a single country in the world that offers comprehensive coverage with an unlimited choice of providers, fully paid for by taxpayers, without insurer gatekeeping, service rationing, or out-of-pocket payments. In reality, there is a direct trade-off between ease of access to providers and the cost borne by individuals in out-of-pocket expenses.”

Pope’s statement pretty much strips bare the fiction of “universal” coverage, a concept too loosely defined to be of any real use except as a rhetorical device. It also highlights the non-monetary costs inflicted on consumers by non-price rationing of care. The presumption that government must provide universal health care coverage and that all other developed countries actually have that arrangement is incorrect.

Pope has another article at the Manhattan Institute site, written late last year, on the lessons we can learn on health care from experience abroad under various payer systems. This offers a more detailed comparison of the structure of the U.S. payment system versus seven other countries, including Canada, the U.K., Australia, and Germany. Single-payer tends to be the “gold standard” for the Left, but the only systems that “approximate” single-payer are in Canada and the U.K. Here is one blurb about Canada:

Canadians have easy access to general practitioners, but getting an appointment to see a specialist is more difficult than in all the other nations studied in this report. The Canadian medical system provides the least hospital care, delivers consistently fewer outpatient procedures, and provides much less access to modern diagnostic technology.

Canadians also have limited access to drugs, according to Pope. And out-of-pocket (OOP) spending is about the same as in the U.S. At the first link above, Pope says:

Canadians spend less on health care than Americans mostly because they are not allowed to use as much — not because they are getting a better deal. … Waiting lists are generally seen as the single-payer budgeter’s friend, as some patients will return to health by themselves, others will be discouraged from seeking treatment, and a large proportion of the most expensive cases will die before any money is due to be spent on them.”

Pope says this about the U.K. at the second link:

U.K. hospitals often lack cutting-edge technology, and mortality after major emergency hospitalizations compares poorly with that of other nations in this report. Access to specialists is very limited, and the system falls well short of most other nations in the delivery of outpatient surgery.” 

Waiting times in the U.K. tend to be long, but in exchange for all these shortcomings in care, at least OOP costs are low. Relative to other payment systems, single payer seems to be the worst in several respects.

The other systems described by Pope are:

  • “dual payer” in Australia and France, with public entitlements and the choice of some private or supplemental coverage;
  • “competing payer” in Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands, whereby subsidies can be used to purchase coverage from private plans (and in Germany some “quasi-public” plans; and
  • “segmented payer” in the U.S., with two public plans for different segments of the population (Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the non-elderly poor), employer-sponsored coverage primarily from larger employers, individually-purchased private coverage, and subsidies to providers for “uncompensated care” for the uninsured.

Here is what Pope says about the various “multi-payer” systems:

“Dual-payer and competitive-payer systems blend into each other, according to the extent of the public entitlement in dual-payer countries …

… limitations in access to care are closely tied to the share of the population enrolled in private insurance—with those in Britain and Canada greatly limited, Australians facing moderate restrictions, and those in the other countries studied being more able to get care when they need it. 

The competing-payer model ideally gives insurers the freedom and responsibility to procure health-care services in a way that attracts people to their plans by offering them the best benefits and the lowest medical costs. While all competing-payer systems fall short of this ideal, in practice they consistently offer good access to high-quality medical care with good insurance protection. The competing-payer model is, therefore, best understood as an objective that is sought rather than yet realized—and countries including Germany, the Netherlands, France, and the U.S., which have experienced the most significant health-care reform over recent years, are each moving toward it.”

The U.S. has very high health care costs as a percent of GDP, but OOP costs are roughly in line with the others (except the Swiss, who face very high OOP costs). The U.S. is wealthier than the other countries reviewed by Pope, so a large part of the cost gap can be attributed to demand for health care as a luxury good, especially late in life. Insured U.S. consumers certainly have access to unrivaled technology and high-quality care with minimal delays.

Several countries, including the U.S., are plagued by a lack of competition among hospitals and other providers. Government regulations, hospital subsidies, and pricing rules are at the root of this problem. Third-party payments separate consumers from the pricing consequences of their health-care decisions, which tends to drive up costs. If that weren’t enough, the tax deductibility of employer-paid insurance premiums in the U.S. is an subsidy ironically granted to those best-able to afford coverage, which ultimately heightens demand and inflates prices.

Notably, unlike other countries, there is no longer an individual mandate in the U.S. or any penalty for being uninsured, other than the potential difficulty in qualifying for coverage with pre-existing conditions. Consumers who lack employer-sponsored or individual coverage, but have incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid or premium subsidies, fall into a gap that has been the bane of would-be reformers. There are a few options for an immediate solution: 1) force them to get insured with another go at an individual mandate; 2) offer public subsidies to a broader class; 3) let them rely on emergency-room services (which cannot turn them away) or other forms of uncompensated care; 4) allow them to purchase cheap temporary and/or catastrophic coverage at their own expense; 5) allow portability of coverage for job losers. Recently, the path of least political resistance seems to have been a combination of 3, 4, and 5. But again, the deficient option preferred by many on the Left: single-payer. Again, from Pope:

Single-payer systems share the common feature of limiting access to care according to what can be raised in taxes. Government revenues consistently lag the growth in demand for medical services resulting from increased affluence, longevity, and technological capacity. As a result, single-payer systems deliver consistently lower quality and access to high-cost specialty care or surgical procedures without reducing overall out-of-pocket costs. Across the countries in this paper, limitations in access to care are closely tied to the share of the population enrolled in private insurance—with those in Britain and Canada greatly limited…”