Over the last hundred years, most countries have made substantial progress toward universal health coverage. The shared trends includes rising incomes, increasing total health expenditures and an expanding role for government in improving access to health care. Despite this, countries vary significantly in their particular routes to universal health coverage. These routes are shaped by prominent leaders and strong popular movements and framed by particular moral claims and world views. They are affected by unpredictable events related to economic cycles, wars, epidemics and initiatives in other public policy spheres. They are also influenced by a country’s own institutional development and experiences in other countries. As a result of these highly contingent paths, countries reach universal health coverage at different income levels and with disparate institutional arrangements for expanding health care access and mitigating financial risk.
This paper examines the histories of attaining universal health coverage in four countries – Sweden, Japan, Chile and Malaysia. It shows that domestic pressures for universalizing access to health care are extremely varied, widespread, and persistent. Secondly, universal health coverage is everywhere accompanied by a large role for government, although that role takes many forms. Third, the path to universal health coverage is contingent, emerging from negotiation rather than design. Finally, universal health coverage is attained incrementally and over long periods of time. These commonalities are shared by all four cases despite substantial differences in income, political regimes, cultures, and health sector institutions. Attention to these commonalities will help countries seeking to expand health coverage today