Thailand’s universal health care coverage led to a rise in life expectancy, decreased mortality rates in children, and leveled historical health disparities between rich and poor regions of the country.
The open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) drew to a close on Dec. 15. Yet, recent assaults on the ACA by the Trump administration stand in marked contrast to efforts to expand access to health care and medicine in the rest of the world. In fact, on Dec. 12, the world observed Universal Coverage Day, a day celebrated by the United Nations to commemorate passage of a momentous, unanimous U.N. General Assembly resolution in support of universal health coverage in 2012.
While the U.N. measure was nonbinding and did not commit U.N. member states to adopt universal health care, many global health experts viewed it as an achievement of extraordinary symbolic importance, as it drew attention to the importance of providing access to quality health care services, medicines and financial protection for all.
Co-sponsored by 90 member states, the declaration shined a light on the profound effect that expansion of health care coverage has had on the lives of ordinary people in parts of the world with far fewer resources than the U.S., including Thailand, Mexico and Ghana. Can the U.S. learn anything from these countries’ efforts?
U.S. and Thailand: A Study in Contrasts
I came to understand these changes as I researched and wrote my book, “Achieving Access: Professional Movements and the Politics of Health Universalism.” The book offers a comparative and historical take on the politics of universal health care and AIDS treatment, featuring Thailand as the primary case. For me, Thailand’s remarkable achievements also put into perspective some of the work we still have to do here in the United States with respect to health reform.
Before the reform, Thailand had four different state health insurance schemes, which collectively covered about 70 percent of the population. The reform in 2002 consolidated two of those programs and extended coverage to everyone who did not already receive coverage through the country’s health insurance programs for civil servants and formal sector workers.