The Leap to Single-Payer: What Taiwan Can Teach

The following originally appeared on The Upshot (copyright 2017, The New York Times Company). It is jointly authored by Aaron Carroll and Austin Frakt.

Taiwan is proof that a country can make a swift and huge change to its health care system, even in the modern day.

The United States, in part because of political stalemate, in part because it has been hemmed in by its history, has been unable to be as bold.

Singapore, which we wrote about in October, tinkers with its health care system all the time. Taiwan, in contrast, revamped its top to bottom.

Less than 25 years ago, Taiwan had a patchwork system that included insurance provided for those who worked privately or for the government, or for trade associations involving farmers or fishermen. Out-of-pocket payments were high, and physicians practiced independently. In March 1995, all that changed.

After talking to experts from all over the world, Taiwan chose William Hsiao, a professor of economics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, to lead a task force to design a new system. Uwe Reinhardt, a longtime Princeton professor, also contributed significantly to the effort. (Mr. Reinhardt, who died last month, was a panelist on an Upshot article comparing international health systems in a tournament format.) The task force studied countries like the United States, Britain, France, Canada, Germany and Japan.

In the end, Taiwan chose to adopt a single-payer system like that found in Medicare or in Canada, not a government-run system like Britain’s. At first, things did not go as well as hoped. Although the country had been planning the change for years, it occurred quite quickly after democracy was established in the early 1990s. The system, including providers and hospitals, was caught somewhat off guard, and many felt that they had not been adequately prepared. The public, however, was much happier about the change.

Today, most hospitals in Taiwan remain privately owned, mostly nonprofit. Most physicians are still either salaried or self-employed in practices.

The health insurance Taiwan provides is comprehensive. Both inpatient and outpatient care are covered, as well as dental care, over-the-counter drugs and traditional Chinese medicine. It’s much more thorough than Medicare is in the United States.

Access is also quite impressive. Patients can choose from pretty much any provider or therapy. Wait times are short, and patients can go straight to specialty care without a referral.

Premiums are paid for by the government, employers and employees. The share paid by each depends on income, with the poor paying a much smaller percentage than the wealthy.

Taiwan’s cost of health care rose faster than inflation, as it has in other countries. In 2001, co-payments for care were increased, and in 2002, they went up again, along with premiums. In those years, the government also began to reduce reimbursement to providers after a “reasonable” number of patients was seen. It also began to pay less for drugs. Finally, it began to institute global budgets — caps on the total amount paid for all care — in the hope of squeezing providers into becoming more efficient.

Relative to the United States and some other countries, Taiwan devotes less of its economy to health care. In the early 2000s, it was spending 5.4 percent of G.D.P., and by 2014 that number had risen to 6.2 percent. By comparison, countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development spend on average more than 9 percent of G.D.P. on health care, and the United States spends about twice that.

After the most recent premium increase in 2010 (only the second in Taiwan’s history), the system began to run surpluses.

This is not to say the system is perfect. Taiwan has a growing physician shortage, and physicians complain about being paid too little to work too hard (although doctors in nearly every system complain about that). Taiwan has an aging population and a low birthrate, which will push the total costs of care upward with a smaller base from which to collect tax revenue.

Taiwan has done a great job at treating many communicable diseases, but more chronic conditions are on the rise. These include cancer and cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, all of which are expensive to treat.

The health system’s quality could also be better. Although O.E.C.D. data aren’t available for the usual comparisons, Taiwan’s internal data show that it has a lot of room for improvement, especially relating to cancer and many aspects of primary care. Taiwan could, perhaps, fix some of this by spending more.

As we showed in our battle of the health care systems, though, complaints can be made about every system, and the one in the United States is certainly no exception. For a country that spends relatively little on health care, Taiwan is accomplishing quite a lot.

Comparing Taiwan and the United States may appear to be like comparing apples and aardvarks. One is geographically small, with only 23 million citizens, while the other is vast and home to well above 300 million. But Taiwan is larger than most states, and a number of states — including Vermont, Colorado and California — have made pushes for single-payer systems in the last few years. These have not succeeded, however, perhaps because there is less tolerance for disruption in the United States than the Taiwanese were willing to accept.

Regardless of which health system you might prefer, Taiwan’s ambition showed what’s possible. It took five years of planning and two years of legislative efforts to accomplish its transformation. That’s less time than the United States has spent fighting over the Affordable Care Act, with much less to show for it.

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