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Can Universal Healthcare Work? A Look at Israel's Successful Model

President Obama gives a thumbs up as he speaks about healthcare reform during a September rally at the Target Center in Minneapolis. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
President Obama gives a thumbs up as he speaks about healthcare reform during a September rally at the Target Center in Minneapolis. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

By Sharon Segel

Healthcare is once again a headline issue in the United States.  President Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms have met with huge opposition from Republican opponents, insurance companies and many American citizens who do not have the means for enforced medical insurance and recent state intervention.  Others believe the proposals, while necessary, do not go far enough to protect those Americans most in need.  The majority of opinion leaders and parliamentarians believe that the system does not work, but differ radically on a solution.

Solutions have eluded many presidents and lawmakers, yet a consensus clearly needs to be reached if change is to be effected.  Many academics and medical professionals believe that to determine a system that works for one and all America needs to stop looking inwards and learn from models in place in other western countries.

Step forward Israel.  A relatively modern healthcare system that has been in existence since – and even predates – independence in May 1948, present-day Israel has 46 hospitals and medical centers, more than 2,000 community-orientated primary care clinics throughout the country, three rehabilitation hospitals, four medical schools, two schools of dentistry, two pharmacology schools and 20 nursing schools.

Today, all Israeli citizens – Jew, Christian and Arab – are entitled to basic health care as a fundamental right. Legislation enacted in the 1990s mandate citizens to join one of four health care funds, which ensures basic protection; citizens can choose to purchase supplementary health care.

Legislation has also played its part in ensuring the needs of all citizens are met.  Two laws exist to protect the citizen – Israel National Health Insurance Law (1995) and Israel’s Patient’s Rights Law (1996).  Israel’s National Health Insurance Law mandates universal and comprehensive health care and requires every resident of Israel to register with one of Israel’s four health care organizations. The law makes it illegal for health funds to bar applicants on any grounds, including age and state of health and institutionalizes the state’s responsibility to provide residents a broad array of health services, which include medical diagnosis and treatment, preventative medicine and health education, hospitalization, surgery and transplants, first aid and transportation to a hospital, among others.

Israel’s Patient’s Rights Law establishes the ethics for protecting the rights of every person who requests medical care or who is in receipt of medical care with 12 basic principles including the right to medical care, a second opinion, patient dignity and privacy and care under emergency or grave danger.
There are several benefits to the Israeli system.  The legislation in place accords citizens real protection and does not leave them vulnerable to socio-economic circumstance or a preexisting medical condition.

What makes the Israeli model so successful?   Dr. Rafi Cayam, Director of Medicine for the Jerusalem District, attributes four key elements.  The first is universal coverage, second is cradle-to-grave coverage, third is the healthcare basket provided by the Ministry of Health that consists of both basic and catastrophic healthcare and fourth is access to medication that is affordable and in some instances covered entirely.

Dr. Cayam looks to the statistics produced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to substantiate his argument.  “According to the latest figures released by the OECD in 2009, life expectancy in Israel is 81, putting Israel in the top 14 countries in the world, with Japan the highest at 83,” said Cayam.  “Israel ranked higher than average in most of the most health care categories as compared to Europe or the United States The newborn mortality rate was three for every 1000 births. The mortality rate for children up to five years old was five to every 1000. In all, 121 people for every 100,000.”

Israel also works to bring down the costs of health care. Records are almost entirely computerized with around 95% of doctors using electronic medical records, compared to around 15% in the United States.  This provides transparency, drug interactions and prescribing patterns, among others.
Medical innovation and biotechnology is also highly developed in Israel.  In 2008, Israel opened its first Bio Park – a medical research orientated Technology Park at Hadassah Medical Organization’s Ein Kerem campus comprising Hadassah Hospital and the Hebrew University’s schools of medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, nursing and public health.  Hadassah Hospital conducts more than half the hospital research in Israel, while the Hebrew University conducts more than one-third of Israel’s scientific research, including more than 40% of the biotechnology research in Israel.  The advances made by Israeli scientists and medical professionals contribute to a sophisticated healthcare system.

The Israeli model isn’t perfect – no system is – but it works. While America is looking around the world at other health systems, it may want to look at Israel.

Sharon Segel is a Legacy Heritage Fellow and Heads the Specialist Stories Project for The Israel Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization impacting world opinion to help achieve security and peace for Israel.

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  1. Just to clarify what Gideon was saying – The American aid can only be used to purchase weapons or equipment for the IDF at significantly inflated prices (around 5,000USD for a standard 1,000USD computer) purchased through the US military. So, no, it does not subsidize Israel’s healthcare system. Not at all

  2. Gideon, I wish there was a like button on your post, very insightful.

  3. It’s amazing just how many people believe the myth that Israel lives off US charity.

    The reality:

    1. American ANNUAL aid to Israel is about $3B, which is very nice, thank you. Here’s an eye-opener: It is what the US spends on its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in one day (as of 2010)!!!

    Back to Israel:

    2. Israel`s annual budget amounts to $80B. Thus, US aid accounts for less than 4% of the national budget. Israel could manage without it. So Israel does not “live off American taxpayers’ money”, not by a long shot.

    3. Those $3B in aid from the US go straight BACK to the American arms industry which is an American interest.

    4. In addition to that, a large chunk of the REST of the Israel’s $20B defence budget ALSO goes to US industry – but this time out of the ISRAELI taxpayer`s money.

    5. And of course, the US gets the best R&D and testing grounds it could wish for for its arms industry in return, free of charge.

    “There is no free lunch” is an American saying. You had better believe it. You can consider the US aid to Israel a nice discount for a loyal and valuable client.

    All this does in no way go to say that I don`t value America`s (especially non-financial) standing by Israel very much.

  4. Perhaps the root of the problem is the American view of healthcare. Those with power and money have always seen healthcare as the privalege of the affluent and the middle class. It is a basic human right for all people. Until healthcare beccomes a constitutional right for all Americans we will continue to avoid making the hard decisions that must be made.

  5. To answer Ms Bells question, Yes the United States subsidizes Israels health care system, And guess who enacted these subsidies ? The GOP aka a Republican majority, So by this standard those Islamic Arabs that the rightwing fringe depises so badly enjoy decent health care while their “Free Market Greed ” cost thousands of US lives every year, Just a little something to remember the next time you step into the voting booth !

  6. I think the orginal question was about Israel’s funding of health care for all their citizens, and how it is possiby made more generous as the Nation is supported by a continual stream of billions of US dollars? While their citizens enjoy universal healthcare, (and lucky them!)Israel honors that this it is a basic human right,we in the United States are suffering our systems inefficencies and greed. You have it [health care] – we help pay for it – we want it here – but we are told we can’t afford it. It’s unjust in every way imaginable!

  7. To the previous commenter – In Israel, taxpayers pay for the entire health care system. There are taxes on individuals and on employers. However, unless one wants to purchase coverages that are beyond the regular “baskets” one does not pay an additional premium that the employer takes out of one’s pay. Since the right to coverage is not tied to one’s employment, no one ever loses coverage due to loss of job or a job change. There are no exclusions for pre-existing coverage.

    Americans who have health insurance may not be paying a tax for having health insurance but they are paying for it through direct premium deductions by their employers and they are also paying for it by lower wages and salaries.

  8. Cheryl Smith-Bell

    So how much of this free health care is subsidized by the American tax payer? Just wondering!

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