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Asa Cristina Laurell and Ligia Giovanella

Since the early 1990s, health policy in Latin America has focused on reform in most countries with the explicit purpose to increase access, decrease inequity, and provide financial protection. Basically, two different and opposed models of reform have been implemented: the Universal Health Coverage (UHC) model and the Single Universal Health System model. The essential characteristics of Latin American UHC are that health care is commodified by the introduction of competition that depends, in turn, on the payer/provider split, free choice, and pre-priced health service plans. In this framework, insurance, be it public or private, is crucial to assuring market solvency, because health needs not backed by purchasing power do not constitute a market that is particularly important in the Latin American region, the most unequal in the world. The Single Universal Health System (in Spanish, Sistema Universal de Salud, SUS) model is a model inspired by the principles of social justice and egalitarian, universal social rights. Characteristically funded by tax revenues, it makes provision of health services to the whole population a responsibility of the State and a universal citizens’ entitlement, independent of individual ability to pay or prior contributions. It considers health to be a public good that, for reasons of efficiency and equity, the market cannot provide. Everyone is entitled, as a right, to free care financed by the State. Given that health system reform occurs in specific historical contexts, these models have had different results in each country. In order to highlight the concrete reform outcomes, the following issues need be addressed: the political scenario and the stakeholders involved; the previous health system and the relative strength of the public and private sectors; coverage achieved by public institutions or insurance, public or private; the different health packages existing within each country; the institutional (re)organization; and the relative importance of public health actions. An analysis is needed of the UHC reforms in Chile, Colombia, and Mexico, on the one hand; and the Single Universal Health System in Brazil, Venezuela, and Cuba on the other. The UHC model in practice tends to increase inequity in access, create new bureaucratic barriers to timely care, fail to provide financial protection, and leads to deteriorated public health measures. It has also created new powerful private sector stakeholders, particularly in Chile and Colombia, while in Mexico the predominance of a strong public sector has “crowed-out” the private one. The Single Universal Health System has significantly increased access for millions that before reform had almost no access and has also strengthened public health actions. However, the strong preexisting private sector providers have profited from the public-sector purchases of complex medical services. Private health insurance has also increased among the upper middle class and workers belonging to strong labor unions.


Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in developing countries are chiefly a post-World War II phenomenon. Though they have made important contributions to health and development among impoverished people throughout the world, the documentation of these contributions has been limited. Even though BRAC and the Jamkhed Comprehensive Rural Health Project (CRHP) are but two of 9.7 million NGOs registered around the world, they are unique. Established in 1972 in Bangladesh, BRAC is now the largest NGO in the world in terms of population served—now reaching 130 million people in 11 different countries. Its programs are multi-sectoral but focus on empowering women and improving the health of mothers and children. Through its unique scheme of generating income through its own social enterprises, BRAC is able to cover 85% of its $1 billion budget from self-generated funds. This innovative approach to funding has enabled BRAC to grow and to sustain that growth as its social enterprises have also prospered. The Jamkhed CRHP, founded in 1970 and located in the Indian state of Maharashtra, is notable for its remarkable national and global influence. It is one of the world’s early examples of empowering communities to address their health problems and the social determinants of those problems, in part by training illiterate women to serve as community health workers. The Jamkhed CRHP served as a major influence on the vision of primary health care that emerged at the 1978 International Conference on Primary Health Care at Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan. Its Institute for Training and Research in Community Health and Population has provided on-site training in community health for 45,000 people from 100 different countries. The book written by the founders entitled Jamkhed: A Comprehensive Rural Health Project, describing its pioneering approach, has been translated into five languages beyond English and is one of the most widely read books on global health. These two exemplary NGOs provide a glimpse of the breadth and depth of NGO contributions to improving the health and well-being of impoverished people throughout the world.