In order to properly answer this question, it is important to first understand what universal health care is. In the most basic sense, universal health care centers on a system by which every citizen of a particular nation has access to quality health services without risking financial hardship. It requires three main things: equitable access to services, quality of services, and affordable cost such that the risk of financial hardship related to quality medical care is mitigated. It’s easy to think that Obamacare and universal health care are one and the same by simply looking at the name: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (also called the Affordable Care Act, or ACA). However, there are key differences between Obamacare and universal health care.
The first thing to note is that Obamacare has provided more affordable health care options to more people in the United States than ever before, and in time, it could develop into a universal health care system. It has certainly set the stage for Americans to begin thinking about the benefits of universal health care. Unfortunately, it is only really the first step in that direction. Obamacare has made health insurance mandatory. Every citizen is now required by law to meet standards for mandatory minimum coverage.
The health care marketplace, including both federally funded programs and state insurance exchanges, makes it easy for Americans to apply for and receive health insurance. It also provides options for underserved populations that have previously gone uninsured or been discriminated against when it comes to obtaining affordable health care, including low-income individuals and families, the elderly, children, those with preexisting medical conditions, and so on. Prior to the passage of Obamacare, some 30 million Americans went uninsured. Many lacked access to affordable health services, including basic necessities like preventive care, and instead relied on emergency services in worst-case scenarios.
Obamacare simply implemented a system designed to make health care more affordable and accessible for these individuals and for all Americans. In some cases, state health exchanges have also helped to increase the reach of partially or fully funded Medicare and Medicaid services for those with the greatest need. You might be thinking to yourself that this sounds an awful lot like universal health coverage, but in fact, there are key differences.
While Obamacare certainly strives to make health care more accessible and affordable to the masses, it does not necessarily ensure that all Americans will receive the affordable services they need. In fact, Americans still have a choice about whether or not to pay for health insurance. Although those who do not buy into the system will have to pay annual penalties for failure to comply with the law, it is possible that there are Americans who will choose to pay penalties rather than buy insurance. In addition, a universal system would ultimately require basic health coverage for all. For example, if Medicare was expanded to cover all Americans then that might qualify as a system of universal health care. Obamacare is closing the gap on the number of uninsured in this country, but it has yet to meet the criteria for universal health care.
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