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A European late starter: lessons from the history of reform in Irish health care

  • Maev-Ann Wren (a1) and Sheelah Connolly (a1)

The Irish health care system is unusual within Europe in not providing universal, equitable access to either primary or acute hospital care. The majority of the population pays out-of-pocket fees to access primary health care. Due to long waits for public hospital care, many purchase private health insurance, which facilitates faster access to public and private hospital services. The system has been the subject of much criticism and repeated reform attempts. Proposals in 2011 to develop a universal health care system, funded by Universal Health Insurance, were abandoned in 2015 largely due to cost concerns. Despite this experience, there remains strong political support for developing a universal health care system. By applying an historical institutionalist approach, the paper develops an understanding of why Ireland has been a European outlier. The aim of the paper is to identify and discuss issues that may arise in introducing a universal healthcare system to Ireland informed by an understanding of previous unsuccessful reform proposals. Challenges in system design faced by a late-starter country like Ireland, including overcoming stakeholder resistance, achieving clarity in the definition of universality and avoiding barriers to access, may be shared by countries whose universal systems have been compromised in the period of austerity.

Corresponding author
*Correspondence to: The Economic and Social Research Institute, Whitaker Square, Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, Dublin 2, Ireland. Email:
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