The public health insurance program in France was established in 1945 and its coverage for its affiliates have undergone many changes since then. One of the major changes has resulted in the expansion to all legal residents, under the law of universal coverage called la couverture maladie universelle (universal health coverage). It is based on the principle of solidarity, guarantying financial protection against life´s contingencies for everyone.

Originally, professional activity (being in employment) was the basis of the funding and benefits of the French public health insurance system known as the Sécurité Sociale (social security). The main fund covers eighty percent of the population. There are two additional funds for the self-employed and agricultural workers.

Reimbursement is regulated through uniform rates. The financing is supported by employers, employee contributions, and personal income taxes. The working population has twenty percent of their gross salary deducted at source to fund the social security system.

The contribution of financing through personal income taxes has gradually increased and its purpose is to make up for the fall in remuneration, reduce price changes on the labor market and allocate the system´s financing among citizens equitably.

Employer and union federations jointly control the funds under the State´s supervision. This involves an intricate collaboration between the various entities of the system.

About seventy five percent of the total health expenditures are covered by the public health insurance system. A part of the balance is paid directly by the patients and the other part by private health insurance companies that are hired individually or in group (assurance complémentaire or mutuelle, complementary insurance or mutual fund).

The State sees that the whole population has access to care; it dictates the types of care that are reimbursed, and to what degree, and what the role is of the different participating entities.

The State is in charge of protecting patient´s rights, elaborating policies and enforcing them. It is responsible for public safety.

Health authorities plan the size and numbers of hospitals. They decide on the amount and allocation of technical equipment (such as MRI, CT scans…). Through its agencies, the State organizes the supply of specialized wards and secures the provision of care at all times.

In recent years, regional authorities have taken a growing role in policy-making and negotiation.

There are two general categories:

  • The public sector, which accounts for 65% of hospital beds. Public hospitals are responsible for supplying ongoing care, teaching and training.
  • Private hospitals are profit oriented. They concentrate on surgical procedures and depend on their fee-for-service for funding.

There is no significant difference in the quality of care between public and private hospitals.

In France, there are 8.4 hospital beds per 1,000 people.

Health professionals and physicians usually work in both public hospitals and private practices. About 36 percent of physicians work in public hospitals or establishments. They are in essence public servants, and the amount they are paid is determined by the government. However, 56 percent of physicians work in private practices because of the difficult working conditions in hospitals.

Experts set the relative price of procedures that are then negotiated by physicians’ unions and public health insurance funds. Around ninety seven percent of practitioners conform to the Tarif de convention (tariff references) which sets prices. Tariff references are the fixed rates to be used by doctors set by the national convention for all health services. Medical practitioners and clinics/hospitals who are not conventions (complying with the tariff references) have to display their prices.

In some situations, certain medical practitioners (such as surgeons with extra qualifications or experience) can charge more than the Tarif de convention. The extra fee is called a dépassement.

There are 3.37 physicians per 1,000 people.

There was a reform in July of 2005 which put in place a process of coordinated care. The patient first visits his/her médecin traitant (general practitioner). This physician has been previously registered at the caisse d´assurance sociale as the one in charge of the coordination of care for the patient. In case the physician or his substitute is unavailable, the patient can consult another physician and inform his/her caisse d´assurance – this does not affect his/her entitlement reimbursement. The patient is free to change to another general practitioner but has to report the change.

The médecin correspondant (correspondent doctor) is the physician to whom the patient has been referred and is usually a specialist. With the authorization of the patient, this physician sends the relevant information to the médecin traitant in order to follow up and coordinate care.

Several specialists have direct authorization for passing on information relevant to care, such as gynecologists, ophthalmologists and psychiatrists.

The service of gynecologists, ophthalmologists and dentists are covered by the State without a referral by a médecin traitant (the patient does not have to go to his/her General Practitioner first).

The patient has to present his card called “Carte Vitale” which transmits all transactions to the caisse d’ assurance where he/she is registered. All medical procedures (hospitalization, laboratory tests, x-rays…) have to take place in the locality of his/her caisse d´assurance. However, the patient can buy medicines anywhere in France and have the reimbursement later deposited on his/her bank account, usually within a ten-day-period.

An average of 70 percent of the cost of a visit to a family doctor or specialist is refunded. Reimbursements are on average of: 95 percent for a major surgery, 80 percent for minor surgery, 95 to 100 percent for pregnancy and childbirth, 70 percent for x-rays, routine dental care and nursing care at home. Reimbursements for prescribed medicines depend on the type of medication and range from 15 percent to 65 percent.

The percentage that is to be paid by the patient and not reimbursed by the Sécurité sociale is called ticket modérateur. This fraction varies following each individual´s obligatory regime set by the tariff references allocated to various medical treatments and associated fees encountered.

A patient can receive 100 percent coverage under certain conditions, such as having a chronic or acute medical condition (including cancer, insulin-dependent diabetes, heart disease…), requiring long-term care, having a long-standing condition, requiring a hospital stay of more than 30 days.

Beneficiaries of the RMI (revenu minimum d´insertion, minimum revenue of introduction) are automatically affiliated to the social security system. They are several requirements to qualify, but essentially every legal resident in France who earn less than a certain amount are entitled to this financial aid. As soon as they are affiliated, they also entitled to the health coverage. Those individuals are entitled to a 100 percent reimbursement of medical and hospital costs.

Since health expenditure is growing in France, there has been ongoing concern about the deficit of the Sécurité Sociale and governments have been inclined to reduce the degree of reimbursement. As a result, more individuals are turning to l´assurance complémentaire (complementary insurance). This health insurance covers all or part of the costs not reimbursed by the health system.

The complementary insurance offers an extensive range of plans. The patient has to select the one that is best suited to his situation and needs to take into consideration his/her state of health, medical consumption, family, income and place of residence.

Since 2007, there have been some changes for EU citizens residing in France, introducing restrictions in their access to the health care system. This affects inactive individuals (not in employment) that do not have a professional activity (not working) or are looking for work, or students. The reason for those limitations is that France has to conform to the European community rules, like the other countries in the community. The new conditions of the right of stay have direct consequences on the social benefits in France.

Right of stay for inactive residence (not in employment) depends on two conditions:

  • They need to have a reasonable level of income in order not to become a burden for the State.
  • They need to have health coverage.

The conditions for inactive EU residents already living on France before November 2007 remain the same.

Students and retired people need to have medical coverage. Students usually have medical coverage from their country of origin or through the French Social Security for students; this applies to students under 28 years of age. Retired individuals, in most cases have health insurance from the country where they worked.

If an EU resident becomes sick and does not fulfill those two conditions and has been residing in France for less than three months, this person is entitled to dispositif soins urgent (emergency care device ). If the person has been residing for more than three months, he/she is entitled to l´Aide Médicale d´Etat (state medical aid).

Inactive EU residents can receive the couverture maladie universelle (universal health coverage) known as CMU if they are legal residents (stable and uninterrupted).

CMU de base (basic CMU)

Basic CMU helps anyone living in France who is not covered by another type of insurance get access to medical care and reimbursement of services and medication. People from all levels of income are entitled to it. The affiliation is not automatic and the person has to apply for it. It covers part of the medical services for the legal resident and the people in his/ her household. It covers typically seventy percent of a doctor’s visit.

CMU complémentaire (complementary CMU)

Complementary CMU facilitates access to health care for people with low income residing in France for more than three months, in a stable and uninterrupted manner. These individuals have one hundred percent coverage without advance payment for the health services or medication (they are fully covered, no money upfront needed). The income of the individual´s household must not exceed a maximum amount. The spouse or partner of the individual, as well as the dependents under 25 years of age are also included in this coverage. It is renewable on a yearly basis.

If a person is a foreign national, outside EU member states or Switzerland, he/she must justify their right of residence in France in order to gain right to the State healthcare.

After five years of legal residence all EU nationals gain permanent right of residence and therefore become fully entitled to the CMU.

Any EU expatriate not officially retired (under retirement age), not working, and not having lived in France for more than five years will lose their right to the French state healthcare except for those who have been living in France since before November of 2007.

Life expectancy in France topped 80 years in 2004. The French health care service is certainly costly to maintain, but it remains one of the best in the world, offering a large choice of general practitioners and healthcare specialists.

Written by Stephanie Brunner B.A.

Original article date: 27 June 2004
Article updated: 8 June 2009