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Don’t Follow America on Health Care

TORONTO – With the United States Supreme Court set to begin considering the Affordable Care Act (the historic health-care reform derided by opponents as “Obamacare”), it is worth noting that the number of Americans without health insurance reached an all-time high in 2010, the year the law was enacted. Roughly 50 million US residents (one in six) pay out-of-pocket for medical expenses.

The 2008 recession is not the only reason for this staggering figure; long-term political and policy choices are also to blame. Globally, but especially for rapidly growing economies, the lesson is simple: avoid America’s private health-care model.

The US is one of the few high-income countries that does not finance health care through a publicly funded prepaid system. On average, wealthier countries spend roughly 11% of their GDP on health, with more than 80% publicly financed and only 14% of spending taking place on a fee-for-service basis. Public finance (or, in some cases, government-regulated cooperative insurance funds that amount to public financing) pays for most discretionary medical services, with private insurance supplementing only minimal extra services.

Most rich countries choose to finance their health care publicly for several reasons. First, free-market health care is usually inequitable and inefficient. Individual needs vary significantly, and private companies are often unwilling to insure the very people who need the most care (such as those who are already ill, or who have conditions like diabetes, which predispose them to other health problems). Moreover, those who buy care – insurers and patients – are unlikely to have the information necessary to choose the safest and most effective treatments.