Fun fact: the rest of the world does not have “Medicare for All”

“Medicare for All” is in the news again, with Kamala Harris’s statement yesterday that she backs the proposal, even to the point of eliminating private insurance altogether. And this topic always brings up comments along the lines of, “in every other civilized countries, the government provides healthcare for everyone.” So, because in my old job I worked not only with pensions but also with employee benefits, comparatively across countries, I wanted to dig out an article I wrote at Patheos a couple years ago which I think is still relevant. I called it “Your handy-dandy guide to health care outside the United States.”

The original article referenced a 2012 OECD table on public vs. private healthcare spending. Here’s that table, updated to 2015, from the OECD publication, “Health at a Glance“:

OECD Health at a Glance

Now, to be honest, I’m not certain what’s going on with the differention between “government schemes” and “compulsory health insurance” for the United States, this is the first year that they’ve split these categories out this way, and the U.S.-specific report doesn’t explain further. It is not, however, the case that the 23% refers to exchange-purchased or Obamacare plans, because in the old 2012 chart, pre-Obamacare, the numbers were split in much the same way. My guess is that this may be treating Medicare as its own independent program.

There are also countries showing very small percentages of “voluntary health insurance” where this doesn’t seem right relative to my understanding and I’m wondering if some of this is classified as “out of pocket.”

But here are some other noteworthy countries (text cribbed from my prior article and updated):

The U.K.

Yeah, 20% non-public spending isn’t huge, but it’s not nothing:  middle-management and higher-level employees are provided private health insurance by their employers.  Not for them the NHS horror stories!  They have access to private clinics and treatments, and “upgraded” spots at public hospitals, whenever NHS is insufficient, has too long a wait list, doesn’t cover a treatment, or is just generally icky.


They’re actually the most Obamacare-ish country:  a standardized basic level of private insurance is mandatory, with subsidies for the poor.  No practice of employer provision — you just buy it on your own.  The catch?  They’re the second-highest-spending country, and are struggling with growing costs.


Health insurance is managed through regional quasi-public entities, which set (very low) reimbursement rates.  How low?  When we lived there, there was a protest march by doctors upset at their low pay.  But hey — medical school was free.  It’s paid for by a payroll tax.  But if you make over a given income level (I think about 50K-ish), you have the option to opt out of the payroll tax and buy your own insurance, with the stipulation that you’re then obliged to continue buying private insurance, rather than switching back and forth.  In addition to potentially cheaper coverage, private insurance gives you such benefits as top-tier doctors and the ability to select a private, rather than three-bed room at the hospital.


Employer-provided health insurance is customary (and I think not just for management but in general); it picks up the not-trivial copays.  In addition, the reimbursement levels provided by the national health insurance are low enough that providers often have a surcharge which the private insurance covers.  This system of surcharges at the “good doctors” and private clinics, paid for by private health insurance, is, it seems to me, fairly common, say, in Italy, as well.


Historically, insurance was not permitted to pay for any service that the national healthcare system covered, so that you couldn’t use it to get coverage at a private provider to skip waiting lists.  It seems to me that I read recently that this has changed.  In any case, what private health insurance does do is cover everything that the national healthcare system doesn’t:  prescription drugs primarily, and upgrades from ward to semi-private or private rooms, and various sorts of therapists and other providers that aren’t covered otherwise.  In addition, private insurance covers out-of-country treatment, and policies specify either all out-of-country treatment or only in cases of emergencies.


Again, single payer, but with a policy of encouraging upper-income folk to buy private insurance — it doesn’t allow you to opt out of payroll tax contributions, but does give you a modest rebate.


Yeah, they’ve got a large percentage of private spending; it seems to me that this is because the State healthcare provision has a lot of holes, copays, etc., which private insurance, routinely a part of employee benefits, covers.


Strictly speaking, there’s comprehensive medical coverage.  But in practice, well, it’s like being obliged to use Cook County hospital for everything.  Again, salaried employees expect to have insurance provided by their employer, to get them access to private, first-world hospitals.  Same with Brazil, which is a huge health insurance market for white collar employees,  and I think even blue collar employees at large employers, in order to escape the poor quality and wait times of the “free” national healthcare system.

One more, also not on the table — Singapore

Singapore’s system gets frequent mention by supporters of “market-based” systems, because one component is a “savings account” similar to the HSA savings accounts that accompany high-deductible plans in the U.S.  See this older post, for instance.  The reality is that “universal” coverage has a lot of copays and employer-provided insurance fills these gaps.

So there you have it:  a world tour of health insurance.

Image: Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Courtney Richardson)