Is our health system in danger? The financing of health insurance and the crisis (1/4)


By Gérard Cornilleau


Health is one of the key concerns of the French. Yet it has not been a major topic of political debate, probably due to the highly technical nature of the problems involved in the financing and management of the health care system. An OFCE note presents four issues that we believe are crucial in the current context of a general economic crisis: the first concerns the financing of health insurance, which is being undermined by a lowering of revenue due to the crisis; the second relates to access to care, which could become more complicated due to a temporary reduction in the number of doctors; the third involves the poor management of changes in the way reimbursement is divided between social security and complementary health insurance organisations in the context of a rise in non-reimbursed expenses (in particular higher surcharges by doctors); and finally, the fourth problem concerns hospital management, which has experienced major disruptions by the introduction of charges on this activity.

The financing of health insurance: A new source to explore

The crisis has further intensified the difficulty of financing health insurance, which is feeding concern about the sustainability of the health system and about public responsibility for healthcare costs. However, an analysis of the main trends in spending and financing shows that in the event of a return to a “normal” macroeconomic situation, the financial difficulties should be contained and only a limited structural effort would be needed to achieve a balanced situation; the initial deficit is relatively small (about 0.6 GDP of the total deficit, which is divided roughly into two equal halves of 0.3 point for the structural deficit and 0.3 point for the cyclical deficit), and there are only moderate prospects for a further rise in spending (with an increase in the expenditure / GDP ratio of around 0.1 percent of GDP a year). An increase in the CSG wealth tax and realistic efforts to control spending (of around 1 to 2 billion euros per year relative to the spontaneous trend) should be sufficient to ensure the financial sustainability of the system.

If the macroeconomic climate remains very bad for a long time, the health insurance deficit could increase, in which case the issue of cutting expenditure could be posed more acutely. There would then be two options: either to accept a new increase in the deficit, as only a radical change in European policy would solve the issue of funding; or to put off a return to growth, which would mean adjusting the financial configuration of health insurance. Three variables could be used to adjust the accounts: to shift spending downwards; to raise taxes; or to lower reimbursements. In the bleak scenario of a halt in growth, it is likely that governments would seek to make use of these three variables. It is difficult to envisage a downward trend in spending at a time when needs will be increasing due to population growth and aging, and the spontaneous trend is already moderate. It would be possible to increase charges, but this would compete with tax increases to finance other government spending. As for lowering reimbursement rates, it would be difficult to do this uniformly when coverage of expenditure on primary care physicians is already very low.

The only path that has not yet been taken is means-testing reimbursement, which would lead to a large increase in the financial co-payments of the wealthiest households. This would undoubtedly reduce the deficit, but it would weaken the system, as public care would become increasingly expensive for the wealthier strata, which would lead them to support moves towards a private insurance system that excluded any redistribution between rich and poor.