In the midst of our national debate about healthcare reform, people on both sides of the debate seem to pick and choose among the facts and myths about the nationalized healthcare available in a number of other countries. The fact is that every nationalized health care system in the world is battling issues of rapidly rising costs and decreasing access to care. But, these systems also have some very attractive benefits. So, let’s take a look at the pro’s and con’s of the German system.
Michael Tanner, the director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute, is the coauthor of Healthy Competition: What’s Holding Back Health Care and How to Free It and the author of this series:
The most significant difference between Germany’s health care system and that of other countries is its use of sickness funds. All Germans with incomes under €46,300 are required to enroll in one of the sickness funds. Those with higher incomes can either join a sickness fund themselves or opt out and instead buy private insurance.
The federal government decides the global budget and which procedures to include in the benefit package. The National Association of Sickness Funds and the National Association of Physicians also help to form which benefits are included in the sickness fund benefit package. The state government regulates physicians and sets physician reimbursement rates.
In 2006, Angela Merkel proposed reforming the health care system by creating a centralized health fund, shifting funding from payroll taxes to general revenues, trimming benefits, and increasing cost sharing. This plan was abandoned due to a lack of public support and political opposition.
Percent Insured. 99.6% (There are about 300,00 uninsured individuals)
Funding. Sickness funds are financed through a payroll tax which averages 15% (but varies depending on the fund chosen). The tax is split between the employer and employee. In 2006, Germany ran a €7 billion deficit and the government has proposed a 1% increase in the payroll tax.
Private Insurance. Approximated 9% of Germans have supplemental insurance. The private, supplemental insurance covers items not paid for in the sickness fund benefit package. As mentioned above, only middle- and upper-class individuals can opt-out of the sickness funds. Of those eligible to opt out, only about 1/4 of individuals do decide to opt out.
Physician Compensation. Physician reimbursement is set through negotiation with the sickness funds. Most of the negotiating power, however, lies with the sickness funds. Thus, the purchasing power of German physician’s wages is about 20% of that of physicians in the U.S. In 2005, there were physician strikes over low wage compensation. Further, physicians have to deal with significant reimbursement caps and budget restrictions. According to Tanner, physicians only attempt to provide the minimum care necessary.
Copayment/Deductibles. Until recently, there have been almost no copays or deductibles. Recently, Germans have begun paying €10 copays for prescription drugs, doctors visits, and hospital stays.
Technology. The U.S. has four times as many MRI units per capita and twice as many CT scanners per capita. Tanner claims that the existence of a small private insurance market helps to supplement technology spending. For instance, CT scanners at one point were almost non-existent in the public sector, but competition with private insurance companies meant that the public system had to add more CT scanners.
Waiting Times. It is a matter of some debate whether or not there are long waits for medical care in Germany. A WHO report says that “Waiting lists and explicit rationing decisions are virtually unknown.” On the other hand, another study finds that care is frequently rationed. For instance, the elderly and those with terminal illnesses are often denied care. Since hospitals are run through a global budget, this can reduce their incentive to treat those with serious, expensive-to-treat medical conditions.
Benefits covered. There is an extensive benefit package which even includes sick pay (70% to 90% of pay) for up to 78 weeks.
Here are links to the entire series: The Grass Is Not Always Greener: A Look at National Health Care Systems Around the World