Providing universal health coverage is a key way to address increasing global inequality, the head of the World Health Organization said Tuesday.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan made the comment—which echoes previous comments she’s made—during a keynote address on the first of a two-day conference on universal health coverage taking place in Singapore.
“Universal health coverage is one of the most powerful social equalizers among all policy options. It is the ultimate expression of fairness,” Agence France-Presse quotes her as saying.
Achieving such coverage demands “deliberate policy decisions,” she said, adding, “At a time when policies in so many sectors are actually increasing social inequalities, I would be delighted to see health lead the world towards greater fairness in ways that matter to each and every person on the planet.”
The WHO defines the goal of universal health coverage as ensuring “that all people obtain the health services they need without suffering financial hardship when paying for them,” and describes such coverage as “the hallmark of a government’s commitment to improve the well-being of all its citizens.”
A fact sheet from the UN body issued in September 2014 states: “At least a billion people suffer each year because they cannot obtain the health services they need.”
In her comments to the 34-member WHO executive board last month, Chan also referred to universal coverage as “one of the most powerful social equalizers,” and stressed the importance of investing in healthcare systems.
“Health systems and supporting infrastructures… are not a luxury to invest in when funds are available or other priorities have been met,” she said at the time. “They are an essential cushion against the shocks our 21st century societies are delivering with ever greater frequency, whether from a changing climate or a runaway virus.”
Dr. David Himmelstein, a professor at the CUNY/Hunter College School of Public Health and lecturer at Harvard Medical School, agrees with Chan that healthcare coverage is key to tackling inequality—a challenge he says can be helped in the United States by a single-payer healthcare system that puts healthcare security above corporate profits.
“It’s clear that universal and comprehensive health coverage is a key to fighting inequality,” Himmelstein said in a statement to Common Dreams. “Unfortunately, in the U.S. we still have 30 million or more who remain uninsured despite Obamacare, and tens of millions more with such skimpy coverage that a serious illness would bankrupt them,” he stated.
“And Dr. Chan is clearly correct that we won’t get the coverage Americans need until our government is willing to take on the powerful corporate interests that block needed reform. To make care affordable we have to evict private insurers and other profiteers from our health care system. Insurers’ overhead and the paperwork they inflict on hospitals and doctors drains hundreds of billions each year from the healthcare budget, and they add no value to our system. And our government has to ask the wealthy to help pay for the poor,” he continued.
“Only a single payer national health insurance plan can provide the health security Americans need,” he said.