The debate about private versus public strategies for medical expense protection is longstanding and has, with the exception of programs for special populations, repeatedly been resolved in the United States in favor of private approaches.
The central role of employment-based health benefits and the very substantial discretion accorded employers rest, in considerable measure, on federal laws and regulations (in particular, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974) that did not explicitly plan or envision that structure.
Many of the values, pressures, and conflicts that have shaped the evolution of employment-based health benefits persist and should be factored into evaluations of this system and proposals for restructuring it. Moreover, it is important to recognize the forces that have led people in this country and elsewhere to expect both more medical care and more protection against its rising cost. These forces, which affect both public and private provision of health coverage, include
an ever-accelerating pace of scientific and technological discovery that has offered new relief from pain and suffering and heightened expectations about the value of new medical technologies, products, and practices;
a century's worth of professional and institutional development in health care that has made possible the delivery of biomedicine's new achievements;
an increase in medical care costs that has been fueled both by economic growth and by advances in clinical capabilities and organizational resources; and
a system of private and public health coverage that has for most of the last 50 years increased financial access to these advances but placed few controls on medical price inflation or overuse of medical services.
On almost every front, the thrust in the United States is still expansionist—the uninsured want basic protection, the insured want restrictions on coverage eased, and researchers, providers, and entrepreneurs devise new technologies and services that further stimulate demand for care. Hence, health care consumes a greater share of national resources each year.
The expansionary thrust has, however, stalled in some areas. In particular, the proportion of the U.S. population covered by private health benefits has leveled off and even shown signs of decline in the employment-based sector. Furthermore, many now question whether current medical practices and technological advances produce improvements in health and well-being commensurate with their cost. These questions reinforce policymakers' wariness about new initiatives to improve equity and access given two decades of unsuccessful efforts to moderate the flow of resources to the health sector.