Considering “Single Payer” Proposals in the U.S.: Lessons from Abroad

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  • Issue: When discussing universal health insurance coverage in the United States, policymakers often draw a contrast between the U.S. and high-income nations that have achieved universal coverage. Some will refer to these countries having “single payer” systems, often implying they are all alike. Yet such a label can be misleading, as considerable differences exist among universal health care systems.
  • Goal: To compare universal coverage systems across three areas: distribution of responsibilities and resources between levels of government; breadth of benefits covered and extent of cost-sharing in public insurance; and role of private insurance.
  • Methods: Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Commonwealth Fund, and other sources are used to compare 12 high-income countries.
  • Key Findings and Conclusion: Countries differ in the extent to which financial and regulatory control over the system rests with the national government or is devolved to regional or local government. They also differ in scope of benefits and degree of cost-sharing required at the point of service. Finally, while virtually all systems incorporate private insurance, its importance varies considerably from country to country. A more nuanced understanding of the variations in other countries’ systems could provide U.S. policymakers with more options for moving forward.


Despite the gains in health insurance coverage made under the Affordable Care Act, the United States remains the only high-income nation without universal health coverage. Coverage is universal, according to the World Health Organization, when “all people have access to needed health services (including prevention, promotion, treatment, rehabilitation, and palliation) of sufficient quality to be effective while also ensuring that the use of these services does not expose the user to financial hardship.”1

Several recent legislative attempts have sought to establish a universal health care system in the U.S. At the federal level, the most prominent of these is Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I–Vt.) Medicare for All proposal (S. 1804, 115th Congress, 2017), which would establish a federal single-payer health insurance program. Along similar lines, various proposals, such as the Medicare-X Choice Act from Senators Michael Bennet (D–Colo.) and Tim Kaine (D–Va.), have called for the expansion of existing public programs as a step toward a universal, public insurance program (S. 1970, 115th Congress, 2017).

At the state level, legislators in many states, including Michigan (House Bill 6285),2 Minnesota (Minnesota Health Plan),3 and New York (Bill A04738A)4 have also advanced legislation to move toward a single-payer health care system. Medicare for All, which enjoys majority support in 42 states, is viewed by many as a litmus test for Democratic presidential hopefuls.5 In recent polling, a majority of Americans supported a Medicare for All plan.6

Medicare for All and similar single-payer plans generally share many common features. They envision a system in which the federal government would raise and allocate most of the funding for health care; the scope of benefits would be quite broad; the role of private insurance would be limited and highly regulated; and cost-sharing would be minimal. Proponents of single-payer health reform often point to the lower costs and broader coverage enjoyed by those covered under universal health care systems around the world as evidence that such systems work.

Other countries’ health insurance systems do share the same broad goals as those of single-payer advocates: to achieve universal coverage while improving the quality of care, improving health equity, and lowering overall health system costs. However, there is considerable variation among universal coverage systems around the world, and most differ in important respects from the systems envisioned by U.S. lawmakers who have introduced federal and state single-payer bills. American advocates for single-payer insurance may benefit from considering the wide range of designs other nations use to achieve universal coverage.

This issue brief uses data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Commonwealth Fund, and other sources to compare key features of universal health care systems in 12 high-income countries: Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, and Taiwan.

We focus on three major areas of variation between these countries that are relevant to U.S. policymakers: the distribution of responsibilities and resources between various levels of government; the breadth of benefits covered and the degree of cost-sharing under public insurance; and the role of private health insurance. There are many other areas of variation among the health care systems of other high-income countries with universal coverage — such as in hospital ownership, new technology adoption, system financing, and global budgeting — that are beyond the scope of this discussion.







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