What Is Universal Health Care?

Created: 02 June, 2018
Updated: 17 October, 2022
5 min read

America needs a fair, affordable and cost-effective health care system. Until recently, the terms “universal health care” and “single-payer health care” didn’t surface quite as much in our conversation about how to fix the system once and for all.

What is universal health care? If you’re like many voters, you may be wondering about the universal health care definition, why it’s often called “single-payer” and how such a system would change the status quo in the health and pharmaceutical industries.

Here’s a crash course.

A Broad Look at Universal Health Care

So what is universal health care? At its simplest, the universal health care definition means free, equal and unrestricted access to health care.

That’s essentially all there is to universal health care from a philosophical standpoint. The idea is that any citizen of a state or a country could walk into a hospital or clinic and have their condition or disease treated by competent hands. They could then walk out the door again without, as the World Health Organization puts it, “being put at risk of financial harm.”

Under such the universal health care system, hospitals, doctors, independent practices and others would be able to render aid to all who need it, without for-profit insurance companies getting in the middle of things. Before the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, private health insurers could legally deny coverage to individuals with pre-existing conditions. This kept the pool of insured persons small and health care premiums artificially high.

The World Health Organization and the United Nations both recognized health care as a fundamental human right in 1948, and the whole of the industrialized world has been headed in this direction for some time now.

Health care is poised to become possibly the most important policy issue in the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential election. So, what does all the terminology really mean — and what would a transition to universal health care actually look like for the average household in America?

Understanding the Universal Health Care Definition

Understanding the universal health care definition requires a basic understanding of how insurance and taxes work.

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Most American households own cars. The vast majority of Americans also don’t have to worry much about how our roads get paid for. Why not? Because we’ve all agreed to help pay for infrastructure upkeep using our tax revenue. To put it more simply, we all chip in and our roads get paved.

Likewise, becoming a paid customer of an insurance company means you’re essentially taking part in the same process as described above. You’re contributing to a financial pool from which you can draw when you need funds.

The problem Obamacare attempted to fix was that private insurers were playing by increasingly unfair rules in order to keep prices high and payouts low. Obamacare did not attempt to remove insurance companies from the equation entirely, which is one of the reasons why it left tens of millions of Americans uninsured.

Universal health care, if implemented, would add health care to the list of advantages we all enjoy as American citizens. The list includes paved roads, safe bridges, clean drinking water, police stations, fire stations, public education, national parks and unemployment assistance, among many others. These are called public services. Collecting taxes helps us pay for all these things.

We’d all be deriving benefit from a universal health care system, and we’d all help cover the costs to varying degrees. The most progressive proposals would see taxes raised on extremely wealthy individuals and corporations, as several Scandinavian countries do already. If implemented in a fiscally responsible way, middle America should see annual health care expenses drop rather than increase.

As for single-payer health care, it goes like this: Under a single-payer or Medicare-for-all system, the delivery of health-related services remains with doctors, hospitals and private practices while the financial bureaucracy rests with a single public entity. In America, that public entity is our democratically elected government. Single-payer systems empower democratic governments to, among other things, negotiate with drug companies for lower prescription prices.

The ACA was a preview of what it would look like if government took over bureaucratic duties from the private insurance sector. Obamacare’s rules, while incomplete, decisively reduced the ways in which insurance providers could prevent aid-giving entities — hospitals, doctors, etc. — from treating ailing Americans.

The potential cost savings for individuals, households and the entire country could be enormous. For a start, nobody would have to worry about monthly premiums. Health care is simply a service you can access as needed as a citizen. Nearly the entire apparatus of the profit-seeking insurance industry would become redundant and obsolete. Consumer-directed health care began the pivot away from employer-provided health care, but truly universal health care access is the next logical step.

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Implementing single-payer or universal health care would cost some jobs, but if those jobs get between patients and the care they need, they’re jobs worth shedding. What we’d get in return is remarkable. According to Physicians for a National Health Program, single-payer health care in America would deliver these benefits:

  • Everybody would have unrestricted access to general, mental, reproductive, vision and dental health care services as needed, including preventive services.
  • Approximately 95 percent of American households would save money each year on health-related expenses.
  • Patients and soon-to-be patients would enjoy unrestricted choices for hospitals and doctors. Private practices would no longer be burdened by the bureaucracy associated with billing insurance companies.

In other words, the fiscal case to be made here is extremely compelling.

Why Doesn’t America Have True Universal Health Care Yet?

So, what is universal health care’s hold-up in America?

The problem is not that America isn’t able to accomplish the establishment of a universal health care system. Rather, it’s that there’s too much profit tied up in the current system — and being spent on the lobbying of politicians — to get any traction on changing things for the better. Every election cycle, insurance companies donate millions upon millions of dollars to public servants across the political spectrum. Real champions for Medicare-for-all, community-owned, single-payer, nonprofit-driven health care are rare in Washington, but are gaining momentum seemingly daily.

No one wants to worry about monthly premiums or declaring bankruptcy to pay medical bills. If you believe universal health care is a pragmatic, morally sound and long-overdue transition for the U.S., you can find out which politicians in your state support universal health care and then endorse them with your vote. You’ll be joining the real silent majority — the 62 percent of the electorate who agree with you.

Photo Credit Michael Fleshman Creative Commons

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