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Failures of Brazil's universal health care plan offer lessons for the US

In 1988, Brazil passed a law guaranteeing every citizen the right to health care. More than 25 years later, however, it is still struggling to meet that ambitious pledge.
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Medical and health workers protest against the working conditions in the public hospitals and the hiring of foreign doctors for the SUS health care system, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on July 3, 2013. (VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images)

SÃO PAULO -- Health is a legal right in Brazil. Ever since the country's constitution was rewritten after the fall of the military government in 1988, Brazil has guaranteed every citizen—and indeed anyone who sets foot in the country—the right to access health care services, at least in theory. Twenty-five years after passing universal health care, however, the country still hasn’t kept its promise.

With a population of 200 million spread across the world’s fifth largest country, the enormity of Brazil means that services aren't the same across the board: São Paulo, for example, has plenty of hospitals, but even ill-equipped clinics are few and far between in backwater states in the Amazon. Geographical distribution is just one barrier. Financial and technological gaps also have many saying that the universal health plan—dubbed SUS (Sistema Único de Saúde)—hasn’t fulfilled its guarantee to cover everyone in Brazil. 

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