Do Public Healthcare Programs Make Societies More Equal? Cross-Country Evidence on Subjective Wellbeing

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Background: Universal health coverage (UHC) aims to provide quality healthcare services and safeguard the population from the financial burden of catastrophic health expenditure. Its primary objectives are to improve longevity and enhance overall quality of life. This study investigates the relationship between UHC and the inequality in subjective wellbeing (SWB) and explores whether public health programs can reduce social inequality. By employing SWB inequality as a measure, we go beyond the conventional income-centric approach to assess social inequality. Methods: The SWB data used in this study are derived from the repeated cross-sectional survey obtained from the European Values Study (EVS) and the World Values Survey (WVS). We adopt an observational study design and employ statistical techniques, such as ordinary least squares, Oaxaca–Blinder decomposition, and the recentered influence function (RIF). The RIF, in particular, allows us to characterise the entire distribution of SWB, rather than focusing on a single point. Results: UHC programs are negatively associated with SWB inequality (-0.070, significant at 5%). The negative association is observed at the 5th, 50th, and 75th percentiles of the SWB distribution, whilst the association becomes positive at the 95th percentile. UHC programs do not contribute to the SWB inequality gap. Conclusions: UHC programs exhibit an inequality-reduction property when the inequality is not severe or when countries are more equal. However, their effectiveness diminishes in the presence of extreme inequality. Health programs do not contribute to the existing SWB inequality gap between developed and developing countries. Strengthening the two dimensions of the UHC program (i.e., service coverage and financial protection) will ensure better health and wellbeing for all, and potentially foster a more equal and inclusive society.