What is socialized medicine?
Socialized medicine is, by definition, a healthcare system in which the government owns and operates healthcare facilities and employs the healthcare professionals, thus also paying for all healthcare services.
How does socialized medicine differ from universal coverage and single-payer health care?
Socialized medicine is often conflated with single-payer health care and universal health care, but those are different concepts. Although universal coverage and single-payer health care are common around the world, truly socialized medicine for a country’s entire population is actually quite rare. The British National Health Service is an example, as the UK funds health care with tax revenue and also employs the country’s medical providers (people can opt-out of the NHS and obtain medical care privately, but this is rare).
Within the U.S., the Veterans Health Administration is an example of socialized medicine, although it only covers a small fraction of Americans.
Universal coverage or universal health care simply refers to a system in which everyone has access to health coverage and/or affordable medical care. This can be provided via socialized medicine, but a more common approach is a mix of public and private coverage and care.
Single-payer health care refers to a system in which the government pays for medical care for its citizens. That care can be provided at government-run medical facilities (as is the case in Britain’s NHS), but it’s more commonly provided at private medical facilities.
Is Obamacare socialized medicine?
No, Obamacare is not socialized medicine. Obamacare is another name for the Affordable Care Act, although people also often use the term Obamacare to refer to health plans sold through the health insurance exchange in each state. These plans are offered by private health insurers such as Anthem, Kaiser, Cigna, Ambetter, Oscar, and UnitedHealthcare. And the doctors and hospitals that participate in their networks are also privately run, each with their own insurance contracts.
The government is only involved insofar as it regulates the coverage that can be offered, and provides premium subsidies to eligible exchange enrollees (most enrollees are subsidy-eligible; this calculator will help you quickly determine your own subsidy eligibility). The coverage regulations include requirements that health plans cover pre-existing conditions, cover the essential health benefits without caps on how much the plan will pay, have adequate provider networks, etc. But Obamacare is not socialized medicine, or anything even close to it.
Note that although the U.S. does not have universal health care, single-payer health care, or socialized medicine, the American Medicare system is a single-payer program run by the federal government, which covers nearly 64 million people. But Medicare is not socialized medicine because the doctors and hospitals are privately operated – the government pays them, but does not own or employ them. Medicaid is another public coverage program in the U.S., covering more than 83 million people, but it’s technically not a single-payer system as it’s funded jointly by the federal and state governments. And like Medicare, Medicaid is not socialized medicine because most of the medical providers are privately employed.
According to World Population Review data, there are 17 countries around the world that have single-payer health care. But far more countries — 117 as of 2021 — have universal health care. Most of them achieve it with a mix of public and private coverage and medical facilities, meaning that while their systems provide universal health care, they do not use socialized medicine or a single-payer approach.