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U.S. ranks near last in equity, affordability and access to primary care

January 11, 2021

Topics: Quote of the Day

By Michelle M. Doty, Roosa S. Tikkanen, Molly FitzGerald, Katharine Fields, and Reginald D. Williams
Health Affairs, December 9, 2020


A high-performing health care system strives to achieve universal access, affordability, high-quality care, and equity, aiming to reduce inequality in outcomes and access. Using data from the 2020 Commonwealth Fund International Health Policy Survey, we report on health status, socioeconomic risk factors, affordability, and access to primary care among US adults compared with ten other high-income countries. We highlight health experiences among lower-income adults and compare income-related disparities between lower- and higher-income adults across countries. Results indicate that among adults with lower incomes, those in the US fare relatively worse on affordability and access to primary care than those in other countries, and income-related disparities across domains are relatively greater throughout. The presence of these disparities should strengthen the resolve to find solutions to eliminate income-related inequality in affordability and primary care access.

From the Introduction

Despite decades of wide-ranging policies in the US and other countries to eliminate health inequality, income-related disparities in health outcomes and access have persisted, and in the case of the US, they have widened over time. Although the health disadvantage in the US predates the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, the US health care system is under renewed scrutiny because the pandemic has exposed stark disparities in economic outcomes and mortality from the virus for socioeconomically disadvantaged people, as well as Black and Latino people, in the US. In other countries, the crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated existing challenges to access and prompted calls to strengthen the resiliency of national health systems.

For more than two decades the Commonwealth Fund International Health Policy surveys have been used to benchmark US health system performance with that of other high-income countries. These studies have documented that compared with other high-income countries, the US ranks last or near last on health outcomes, access, affordability, and equity. Numerous studies have found that income-related inequality in morbidity, life expectancy, and accessibility is greater in the US than in other advanced economies. Although the US health disadvantage is well known, timely cross-national comparisons of health care experiences by income can help policy makers assess relative health system performance and guide policies that have the potential to eliminate income-related health disparities and improve health outcomes for all.

From the Discussion

Our study confirms findings from previous research that adults with lower incomes in the US were far more likely than those in the other high-income nations studied here to go without needed health care because of costs, to face medical bill burdens, and to struggle to afford basic necessities such as housing and healthy food.

Furthermore, findings indicate that income-related disparities in health status, affordability, and primary care access were most pronounced in the US, supporting other evidence that the US health disadvantage is considerable. Notably, income-related disparities in affordability and access were smallest in Germany, and only in the US were there consistently wide income disparities on all measures related to accessible primary care.

Yet these problems are not confined to the economically disadvantaged. Several studies have found that US adults with higher incomes or socioeconomic status may experience poorer health than their counterparts in peer countries. We found that higher-income adults in the US were more likely than their peers in most countries studied to forgo needed health care because of the cost. The relatively high prices Americans pay for health care, as well as the growing problem of underinsurance, fail to protect insured adults in the US from high out-of-pocket spending, leading to problems with affordability and access to care even among those with higher incomes.

Several characteristics differentiate the US health system from those in other high-income countries in this study, which may contribute to the larger income-related inequalities observed in the US.

First, the US lacks universal health coverage, which matters for population health outcomes.

Second, despite decades of research demonstrating that countries with robust primary care have greater equity, better quality, and lower per capita costs, the US underinvests in primary care.

Third, relative to most of the high-income countries in this study, the US underinvests in the upstream social determinants of health and social services that would support healthy living conditions, livelihoods, and better health for the population.


The US has the opportunity to commit to policy and practice changes that will make progress toward eliminating income-related health inequality, ultimately improving both outcomes and equity on a national scale. Decisive action is needed to advance policies that will improve insurance coverage, increase affordability, strengthen primary care, and increase investments that address the social determinants of health.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

In an ongoing series of international health policy surveys of eleven wealthy nations, the Commonwealth Fund shows, once again, that the United States ranks last or near the last on health outcomes, access, affordability, and equity, even though our health care spending is the highest per capita of all these nations.

Three factors are particularly important: 1) the U.S. lacks universal health coverage, 2) we underinvest in primary care, and 3) we underinvest in upstream social determinants of health and social services. Income inequality is a major contributor.

We can do this. We have the funds. We merely need to enact and implement a well designed, single payer, improved Medicare for all that includes attention to the social determinants of health. Why do we insist on staying with a system that costs more and yet keeps us near the bottom in performance? Our incoming president wants us at or near the top, and yet he has rejected the model that will get us there. Will there be anyone there who can teach him?

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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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