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Governing decentralization in health care under tough budget constraint: What can we learn from the Italian experience?

By Fabrizio Tediosi, Stefania Gabriele and Francesco Longo


In many European countries, since the World War II, there has been a trend towards decentralization of health policy to lower levels of governments, while more recently there have been re-centralization processes. Whether re-centralization will be the new paradigm of European health policy or not is difficult to say. In the Italian National Health Service (SSN) decentralization raised two related questions that might be interesting for the international debate on decentralization in health care: (a) what sort of regulatory framework and institutional balances are required to govern decentralization in health care in a heterogeneous country under tough budget constraints? (b) how can it be ensured that the most advanced parts of the country remain committed to solidarity, supporting the weakest ones? To address these questions this article describes the recent trends in SSN funding and expenditure, it reviews the strategy adopted by the Italian government for governing the decentralization process and discusses the findings to draw policy conclusions. The main lessons emerging from this experience are that: (1) when the differences in administrative and policy skills, in socio-economic standards and social capital are wide, decentralization may lead to undesirable divergent evolution paths; (2) even in decentralized systems, the role of the Central government can be very important to contain health expenditure; (3) a strong governance of the Central government may help and not hinder the enforcement of decentralization; and (4) supporting the weakest Regions and maintaining inter-regional solidarity is hard but possible. In Italy, despite an increasing role of the Central government in steering the SSN, the pattern of regional decentralization of health sector decision making does not seem at risk. Nevertheless, the Italian case confirms the complexity of decentralization and re-centralization processes that sometimes can be paradoxically reinforcing each other.Decentralization Re-centralization Health system governance Regionalization

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