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WHO: Can Europeans afford their health care?

September 19, 2019

Topics: Quote of the Day

By Sarah Thomson, Jonathan Cylus, Tamás Evetovits
World Health Organization

From the Forward

“One of the report’s key findings is that even in Europe’s richest countries people are pushed into poverty – and many already poor households experience financial hardship – as a result of having to pay out of pocket for health services. This indicates that all Member States can take steps to improve financial protection.” – Hans Kluge, Director of the Division of Health Systems and Public Health WHO Regional Office for Europe

From the Executive Summary

New numbers for Europe

Drawing on publicly available national household budget survey data, the report provides up-to-date numbers on financial protection for 24 high- and middle-income countries in Europe.

  • The incidence of impoverishing health spending in the study countries ranges from 0.3% to 9.0% of households. There is wide variation among European Union (EU) countries (from 0.3% to 5.9%) and among non-EU countries also (from 3.6% to 9.0%).
  • The incidence of catastrophic health spending ranges from 1% to 17% of households in the study countries. It varies widely among the 18 EU countries in the study, including wide variation among countries that joined the EU after 30 April 2004.
  • Catastrophic health spending is consistently heavily concentrated among the poorest fifth of the population.
  • Out-of-pocket payments incurred by households with catastrophic health spending are mainly due to outpatient medicines, followed by inpatient care and dental care.

Gaps in coverage

People are exposed to out-of-pocket payments and unmet need when there are gaps in coverage. Gaps in coverage arise from weaknesses in the design of three policy areas: the basis for population entitlement leaves some people without access to publicly financed health services; the range of services that is publicly financed – the benefits package – is narrow, or there are issues relating to the availability, quality and timeliness of these services; and there are user charges (co-payments) in place for services in the benefits package.

Weaknesses in coverage policy undermine equity and efficiency by creating financial barriers to access; shifting the financial burden of paying for health care on to those who can least afford it – poor people and regular users of health services; and encouraging inefficient patterns of use.

Acting on the evidence

To be effective, changes to coverage policy should be supported by an adequate level of public spending on health. Countries in which the out-of-pocket payment share of current spending on health is relatively high will need to invest more publicly in the health system to reduce out-of-pocket payments. Simply increasing public spending might not be enough to improve outcomes for those most in need, however. The sequencing of policy is therefore important. Some countries will need to redesign coverage policy at the same time as seeking additional public investment in the health system.

There is a wealth of good practice in Europe. Lessons can be learned from countries with strong financial protection and countries where financial protection is weak overall but steps have been taken to protect poor people.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

It is often said that we can learn much from Europe on how to more effectively and equitably finance health care in the United States. What is often not said is that we can learn a lot on how not to do it. As WHO’s Hans Kluge states, “One of the report’s key findings is that even in Europe’s richest countries people are pushed into poverty.”

It is not as if we don’t already know how to do it. PNHP’s Physicians’ Proposal for Single-Payer Health Care Reform would address the deficiencies that result in the failure of European systems to provide adequate financial protection for absolutely everyone.

Rather than advocating for a European-style health care financing system, we can do better. By enacting and implementing a well designed Single Payer Medicare for All, we would have a better than European or Canadian-style system – we would have the best health care system in the world.

Stay informed! Visit www.pnhp.org/qotd to sign up for daily email updates.

About the Commentator, Don McCanne

Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

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