Single-Payer Health Care: Is That What Makes France So Different? (The French Way of Cancer Care – Part 2)

In “The French Way of Cancer Treatment,”  Anya Schiffrin writes eloquently about the care that her father, Andre Schiffrin, received when he was diagnosed with stage-four-pancreatic cancer, and decided that he wanted to go to France, his birthplace, for treatment. Schiffrin had been undergoing chemotherapy at New York City’s Memorial Sloane Kettering, and his family was concerned: how could a public hospital in Paris compete with a world-class cancer center?

To their amazement, they discovered that “the French way” of caring for a cancer patient was much better suited to Schiffrin’s wants and needs—and this was not because he had been born in France.

At the end of her essay, Schiffrin suggests that “the simplicity of the French system meant that all our energy could be spent on one thing: caring for my father.”  Back in New York, she confides, “every time I sit on hold now with the billing department of my New York doctors and insurance company, I think [of] all the things French healthcare got right.”

                                      A Hybrid Public/Private System

 Many readers might assume this means France has a single-payer system, and that is the key to its simplicity and success. But in fact, France relies on a hybrid system that is not unlike Obamacare. The government picks up the tab for only about three-quarters of the nation’s healthcare bill.

(In 2013 the U.S. government paid for roughly 48% of medical care, though, this year, with the expansion of Medicaid, and millions of uninsured and under-insured Americans joining the Exchanges where the majority will receive government subsidies, Washington will cover more of the bill.  And in the years ahead, as baby- boomers age into Medicare,  government’s share will grow.

In France, “everyone is covered to a certain extent by the government’s Assurance Maladie,” explains Claire Lundberg, a New Yorker now living in Paris where she recently had a baby. “But most people also have private insurance, called a mutuelle that is either offered through their employer or bought on the private market. There’s a thriving private insurance market in France. . .  Private medical insurance is advertised on the sides of buses and alongside movie previews in theaters.”

Ninety-two percent of the French have supplemental private insurance. Many are insured through their employers, as they are here.  Patients pay 7 percent of all health care costs out of pocket.

In France payroll taxes, paid by both the employer and the employee, along with income taxes help finance the 73% of the  bill that the government covers. All told, French workers contribute around 13% of what they earn to the public sector healthcare fund.

Government Regulation Means Lower, Transparent Pricing

 While the French government does not pay all healthcare bills, it does regulate prices. Because it sets fees for medical services, pricing is transparent

This is why, in France, Schiffrin didn’t have to spend hours on the phone talking to her doctors’ and insurers’ billing departments. There was no uncertainty as to what doctors and hospitals would or should be paid.

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