As a Canadian living and studying health policy in the United States, I’ve watched with interest as a growing list of Democratic presidential candidates — Senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker — have indicated support for a Canadian-style single-payer plan with little or no role for private insurance. Approval of such a system has become almost a litmus test for the party’s progressive base.
But rather than looking north for inspiration, American health care reformers would be better served looking east, across the Atlantic.
Germany offers a health insurance model that, like Canada’s, results in far less spending than in the United States, while achieving universal, comprehensive coverage. The difference is that Germany’s is a multipayer model, which builds more naturally on the American health insurance system.
Although it receives little attention in the United States, this model, pioneered by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1883, was the first social health insurance system in the world. It has since been copied across Europe and Asia, becoming far more common than the Canadian single-payer model. This model ensures that all citizens have access to affordable health care, but it also incorporates age-old American values of choice and private competition in health insurance.