The comparative literature on health care reform has identified a convergence upon market models as nations respond to similar economic, technological, social, and demographic pressures. In this article I first challenge the conventional view by comparing “market” reforms of the late 1980s and early 1990s in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Though these nations did indeed converge upon the instrument of the market incentive, there was considerable divergence in the content and aims of their reform strategies. These nations designed their respective markets to make different tradeoffs among competing values. While all three exploited the principle of provider competition, they appointed different actors to judge the contest: the cost-conscious public authority in the United Kingdom, the quality-conscious patient in Sweden, and the optimizing consumer in the Netherlands. I argue that these countries were thus using common market tools to promote different health policy goals. Distinguishing these reforms further is the fact that—particularly in the Netherlands—there was a gap between market plans and the reality of implemented change. I then ask why nations responded so differently to such similar objective pressures. My contention is that this divergence reflects, in part, the different ideological orientations of the ruling party or coalition in each nation. Yet divergence is also the result of differences in both the design of political institutions and the structure of the pre-reform health system in each country.

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