The following originally appeared on The Upshot (copyright 2017, The New York Times Company) and was jointly authored by Aaron Carroll and Austin Frakt. Click through to the original to cast your own votes in each health system face-off described below. This piece also appeared on pages A12 and A13 of the September 25, 2017 print edition.
“Medicare for all,” or “single-payer,” is becoming a rallying cry for Democrats.
This is often accompanied by calls to match the health care coverage of “the rest of the world.” But this overlooks a crucial fact: The “rest of the world” is not all alike.
The commonality is universal coverage, but wealthy nations have taken varying approaches to it, some relying heavily on the government (as with single-payer); some relying more on private insurers; others in between.
Experts don’t agree on which is best; a lot depends on perspective. But we thought it would be fun to stage a small tournament.
We selected eight countries, representing a range of health care systems, and established a bracket by randomly assigning seeds.
To select the winner of each matchup, we gathered a small judging panel, which includes us:
- Aaron Carroll, a health services researcher and professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine
- Austin Frakt, director of the Partnered Evidence-Based Policy Resource Center at the V.A. Boston Healthcare System; associate professor with Boston University’s School of Public Health; and adjunct associate professor with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
and three economists and physician experts in health care systems:
- Craig Garthwaite, a health economist with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management
- Uwe Reinhardt, a health economist with Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
- Ashish Jha, a physician with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute
A summary of our worldviews on health care is at bottom.
So that you can play along at home and make your own picks, we’ll describe each system along with our choices (the experts’ selections will decide who advances). When we cite hard data, they come from the Commonwealth Fund’s International Country Comparison in 2017.
But enough talk. Let’s play.
Canada vs. Britain: Single-Payer Showdown
Both have single-payer systems, but vary in the government’s role and in what is covered.
In Canada, the government finances health insurance, and the private sector delivers care. Insurance, run at the province level, doesn’t cover drugs, dentists or optometry. Many Canadians have supplemental private insurance through their jobs to help pay for these. The government ends up paying for about 70 percent of health care spending in all.
Britain has truly socialized medicine: The government not only finances care, but also provides it through the National Health Service. Coverage is broad, and most services are free to citizens once they’ve paid taxes, though there is a private system that runs alongside the public one. About 10 percent buy private insurance. Government spending accounts for more than 80 percent of all health care spending.
U.S. analogues are Medicare (more like Canada) and the Veterans Health Administration (more like Britain).
Canada and Britain are pretty similar in terms of spending — both spend just over 10 percent of G.D.P. on health care. They also have reasonably similar results on quality, although neither ranks near the top in the usual international comparisons. In terms of access, though, Britain excels, with shorter wait times and fewer access barriers due to cost.
Our pick: Britain, 4-1
AARON: Britain. It’s efficient. Given the rather low spending, it provides great access with acceptable outcomes.
CRAIG: Britain. Patients in Britain have a greater ability to shop across providers (using additional private insurance). This, combined with reforms within the N.H.S., helped increase competition and quality.
AUSTIN: Britain. While the countries are close in spending and quality, Britain has much lower cost-based barriers to access.
ASHISH: Britain. Access problems can be profound in Canada — nearly one in five Canadians report waiting four months or more for elective surgery, which can be more than just an inconvenience.
UWE: Canada. The Canadian system is simpler for citizens to understand and highly equitable.
U.S. vs. Singapore: A Mix of Ideas
The United States has a mix of clashing ideas: private insurance through employment; single-payer Medicare mainly for those 65 and older; state-managed Medicaid for many low-income people; private insurance through exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act; as well as about 28 million people without any insurance at all. Hospitals are private, except for those run by the Veterans Health Administration.
Singapore has a unique approach. Basic care in government-run hospital wards is cheap, sometimes free, with more deluxe care in private rooms available for those paying extra. Singapore’s workers contribute 36 percent of their wages to mandated savings accounts that may be spent on health care, as well as on housing, insurance, investment or education. The government, which helps control costs, is involved in decisions about investing in new technology. It also uses bulk purchasing power to spend less on drugs, controls the number of medical students and physicians in the country, and helps decide how much they can earn.
Singapore’s system costs far less than America’s (4.9 percent of G.D.P. versus 17.2 percent). Singapore doesn’t release the same data as most other advanced nations, although it’s widely thought that it provides pretty good care for a small amount of spending. Others counter that access and quality vary, with wide disparities between those at the top and bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.
Our pick: United States, 4-1
AARON: United States. Singapore is intriguing, because it’s so different from other systems. But its huge mandatory savings requirement would be a nonstarter for many in the United States.
CRAIG: United States. Singapore, a scrappy underdog, has become a fan favorite of conservatives. But its reliance on health savings accounts is problematic: When people are spending more of their own money on health care, they tend to forgo both effective and ineffective care in equal measure.
AUSTIN: United States. It’s hard for me to overlook Singapore’s lack of openness with data.
ASHISH: United States. The lack of data in Singapore is a problem, and it had higher rates of unnecessary hospitalizations and far higher heart attack and stroke mortality rates than the United States. Plus, the U.S. has a highly dynamic and innovative health care system. It is the engine for new diagnostics and treatments from which Singapore and other nations benefit.
UWE: Singapore. It’s hard to defend the messy American health system, with its mixture of unbridled compassion and unbridled cruelty.
France vs. Australia: Everyone Covered
The list of services covered in France is more extensive than in Australia — perhaps more than in any other health care system. Australia has the advantage in expense.
Australia provides free inpatient care in public hospitals, access to most medical services and prescription drugs. There is also voluntary private health insurance, giving access to private hospitals and to some services the public system does not cover.
The government pays for at least 85 percent of outpatient services, and for 75 percent of the medical fee schedule for private patients who use public hospitals. Patients must pay out of pocket for whatever isn’t covered. Most doctors are self-employed, work in groups and are paid fee-for-service. More than half of hospitals are public.
Everyone in France must buy health insurance, sold by a small number of nonprofit funds, which are largely financed through taxes. Public insurance covers between 70 percent and 80 percent of costs. Voluntary health insurance can cover the rest, leaving out-of-pocket payments relatively low. About 95 percent of the population has voluntary coverage, through jobs or with the help of means-tested vouchers. The Ministry of Health sets funds and budgets; it also regulates the number of hospital beds, what equipment is purchased and how many medical students are trained. The ministry sets prices for procedures and drugs.
The French health system is relatively expensive at 11.8 percent of G.D.P., while Australia’s is at 9 percent. Access and quality are excellent in both systems.
Our pick: France, 4-1
AARON: France. It provides almost everything you’d want, and it’s expensive only compared with countries other than the United States. (Compared with the U.S., it’s a bargain.)
CRAIG: France. It has seemingly done a better job of using markets to create competition across public and private hospitals — which provides incentives for quality provision and innovation.
AUSTIN: Australia. It was a close call. Australia achieves good outcomes (by some but not all measures better than France) with a lot less spending, making it a better value.
ASHISH: France. Both countries cover everyone, but people in France report somewhat fewer problems getting access to care, as well as shorter waiting times.
UWE: France. The Australian system is basically two-tiered: a public insurance-and-delivery system, and another based on private health insurance, each of which cover roughly half the population. This seems to work well in Australia, but in the U.S. the public system most likely would be badly underfunded. Therefore, France would be superior.
Switzerland vs. Germany: Neighborly Rivalry
Germany’s system and Switzerland’s have a lot in common. Germany has slightly better access, especially with respect to costs. Switzerland has higher levels of cost-sharing, but its outcomes are hard to beat — arguably the best in the world.
Like every country here except the U.S., Switzerland has a universal health care system, requiring all to buy insurance. The plans resemble those in the United States under the Affordable Care Act: offered by private insurance companies, community rated and guaranteed-issue, with prices varying by things like breadth of network, size of deductible and ease of seeing a specialist. Almost 30 percent of people get subsidies offsetting the cost of premiums, on a sliding scale pegged to income. Although these plans are offered on a nonprofit basis, insurers can also offer coverage on a for-profit basis, providing additional services and more choice in hospitals. For these voluntary plans, insurance companies may vary benefits and premiums; they also can deny coverage to people with chronic conditions. Most doctors work on a national fee-for-service scale, and patients have considerable choice of doctors, unless they’ve selected a managed-care plan.
A majority of Germans (86 percent) get their coverage primarily though the national public system, with others choosing voluntary private health insurance. Most premiums for the public system are based on income and paid for by employers and employees, with subsidies available but capped at earnings of about $65,000. Patients have a lot of choice among doctors and hospitals, and cost sharing is quite low. It’s capped for low-income people, reduced for care of those with chronic illnesses, and nonexistent for services to children. There are no subsidies for private health insurance, but the government regulates premiums, which can be higher for people with pre-existing conditions. Private insurers charge premiums on an actuarial basiswhen they first enroll a customer, and subsequently raise premiums only as a function of age — not health status. Most physicians work in a fee-for-service setting based on negotiated rates, and there are limits on what they can be paid annually.
Both systems cost their countries about 11 percent of G.D.P.
Our pick: Switzerland, 3-2
AARON: Switzerland. It has superior outcomes. It’s worth noting that its system is very similar to the Obamacare exchanges.
CRAIG: Switzerland. The Swiss system looks a lot like a better-functioning version of the Affordable Care Act. There’s heavy, but quite regulated, competition among insurers and an individual mandate.
AUSTIN: Germany. Germany has a low level of cost-based access barriers — tied with Britain for the lowest among our competitors.
ASHISH: Switzerland. Switzerland outperformed Germany on a number of important quality measures, including fewer unnecessary hospitalizations and lower heart attack mortality rates.
UWE: Germany. The Swiss social insurance system — a late comer, enacted only in the 1990s, and financed by per-capita premiums — is less equitable than many other European systems, including Germany’s.
Switzerland vs. Britain: Meaning of a Market
How does the cost-effectiveness of Britain’s “socialized medicine” stack up against the competitive but heavily regulated private system of Switzerland?
Our pick: Switzerland, 3-2
AARON: Switzerland. It has better quality, and perhaps access, but those come at a higher cost. I’m willing to make that trade-off.
CRAIG: Britain. Switzerland’s system — privately funded with private insurers — is often held up as a bastion of competition. But it is not necessarily more of a market than Britain; it just hides the heavy hand of government a bit more. In reality, the insurance and provider market is heavily regulated.
The U.K. system is almost entirely publicly funded, but it has done a lot to try to increase the competition between facilities, which has increased the quality of service.
AUSTIN: Britain. It systematically incorporates cost effectiveness into coverage decisions.
ASHISH: Switzerland. These are two countries with high-performing health systems, but Switzerland has better access and quality, albeit at somewhat higher costs.
UWE: Switzerland. Switzerland has better facilities and speed of access to care.
France vs. U.S.: Access vs. Innovation
France has extensive coverage, with costs that are high relative to many other nations. The U.S. system, praised as dynamic and innovative, is even more expensive, falls short of universal coverage and can be bewilderingly complex. Which do our experts prefer?
Our pick: France, 3-2
AARON: France. France provides an amazing level of access and quality for the cost. The U.S. is considered the driver of health care innovation, which comes at a high price. But there are other ways to incentivize innovation in the private sector besides how we pay for and deliver care.
CRAIG: United States. The U.S. system is a bit of a mess in that it is quite expensive and doesn’t offer complete coverage to its populace. But the system really does have the strongest incentives for innovation on medical technology — which provides an amazing amount of welfare for citizens around the globe.
AUSTIN: France. It’s hard to justify the very high level of U.S. spending based on innovation alone, particularly without mechanisms to steer innovation toward technologies that are cost-effective.
ASHISH: United States. France has a far more equitable system, with few delays and reasonably good outcomes. However, the U.S. delivers a superior quality of care on the measures that matter most to patients, and the system is far more dynamic and innovative. It was close, but I picked the United States.
UWE: France. The U.S. is just too expensive for what it delivers, and includes too much financial insecurity to boot. At international health care conferences, arguing that a certain proposed policy would drive some country’s system closer to the U.S. model usually is the kiss of death.
France vs. Switzerland: Top of the Mountain (Alps Edition)
France’s system is impressively comprehensive and in some respects simpler. Switzerland relies on a competitive yet much-regulated system of private insurers. Which has the edge and why?
Our pick: Switzerland, 3-2
AARON: Switzerland. This is a tough call. Switzerland does a good job of combining conservative and progressive beliefs about health care systems into a workable model providing top-notch access and quality at a reasonable cost. It doesn’t hurt that it does so through private (although heavily regulated) insurance.
CRAIG: France. Its system has more competition among providers than Switzerland’s does.
AUSTIN: Switzerland. The Swiss system is so close to the A.C.A.’s structure (which, to date, has survived all manner of political attacks) that something like it could work in the U.S.
ASHISH: Switzerland Both of these countries spend a lot on health care, outpacing the average among high-income countries, and both perform comparably on measures of access to care. However, in general, the Swiss health care system delivers a higher quality of care across a range of measures and invests more in innovation that fuels new knowledge and, ultimately, better treatments that we all benefit from.
UWE: France. It is cheaper, its financing is more equitable, and its system is simpler.
Germany would have tied Switzerland had we averaged our rankings of the nations instead of using head-to-head matchups in a bracket system (Switzerland eliminated Germany in the first round). It’s an example of how close the voting was. Not one vote was unanimous among the judges, and all the semifinal and final votes were 3-2. Clearly, there is room for disagreement about the relative merits of health systems, and different experts would surely reach different conclusions.
Some judges took a global view, giving the edge to countries, like the United States, that promoted innovation that benefited the rest of the world. In other cases, how health systems treated the poorest of society was paramount.
To nobody’s surprise, the United States could do better at balancing health care costs with access, quality and outcomes. But there are many ways to reach that goal, and there will always be trade-offs. Learning about them from other systems and debating them honestly would probably do us a lot of good.
We hope that readers will consider this to be merely the beginning of a discussion, not the end. We welcome your questions or comments. In fact, we look forward to writing articles in which we answer those questions and ask other experts with different views to weigh in.
Have you experienced a health system outside the United States? Tell us its best or worst feature. And what advice would you give Americans?
Craig Garthwaite is a conservative economist who believes that well-regulated markets offer the best means of providing quality and innovation. He’s a lifelong Republican but has been broadly supportive of the market-based A.C.A.
Uwe Reinhardt, who has analyzed health care systems around the world for half a century, has been a longtime supporter of single-payer, although he has said he doesn’t believe the United States could manage that system well because it’s captured by special interests.
Ashish Jha and Aaron Carroll believe in universal coverage. Austin Frakt is less invested in universal coverage than universal access to affordable coverage. All three pay less attention to whether a system is more government-run or more market-based because they think either approach can succeed if devised well. Aaron and Austin blog at The Incidental Economist. For more information on health care systems, you can view Aaron’s Healthcare Triage playlist of videos. Ashish blogs at an Ounce of Evidence.