Socialized Medicine - What Is It?

Doctor dressed as Uncle Sam cares for a patient in a system of socialized medicine.
In a socialized medicine system, the government pays for and usually delivers health care. Image &copy/ Rubberball/Mike Kemp/Getty Images

If you listen to far-right-leaning conservatives in the United States, socialized medicine sounds like the root of all evil. It will lead to crippling national debt, crippling taxes, lousy health care, and a dependent population.

If you listen to far-left-leaning liberals in the United States, socialized medicine sounds like the answer to all of the United States’ health care problems. If the country just had socialized medicine, the entire population would be healthier and the country would save tons of money by eliminating those pesky middle-men, private health insurance companies.

But, what is socialized medicine, exactly? You can’t evaluate the claims about how wonderful or evil socialized medicine is if you don't really know what it is or how it works.

What Socialized Medicine Really Means

Socialized medicine is a health care system where health care is paid for and delivered by the society as a whole. Strictly speaking, this means it’s both:

  • paid for by the government, and
  • the doctors, nurses, and hospitals that deliver the care are employees of the government.

Examples of this form of socialized medicine include Cuba’s health care system.

A somewhat broader definition of socialized medicine is a single-payer system where the government pays for all health care, but the health care isn’t actually delivered by government employees. For example, the government might contract with private businesses to run hospitals. The private businesses, rather than the government, hire the employees who actually staff hospitals and clinics and deliver the health care.

What both of these forms of socialized medicine have in common is that the government pays for the health care of everyone in the society. Since the government itself gets its money from the taxpaying members of society, ultimately taxpayers pick up the tab for health care in societies using a system of socialized medicine.

How Some U.S. Health Care Is Already Socialized

Although strictly speaking, the United States doesn’t have socialized medicine, there are some aspects of health care in the U.S. that are socialized. For example, the health care provided by the Veterans Administration is provided using a system of socialized medicine. VA health care is paid for by the federal government and delivered by employees of the federal government. The federal government uses taxes it gets from the general population to finance the both military medicine and VA health care.

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