Context: History helps us to better understand the particulars of the form and functions of institutions. In this paper we present the case study of the evolution of health care financing in the Netherlands over the past 150 years, through the lens of incremental institutional change. Methods: Our historical and political analysis is based on a review of secondary literature as well as relevant policy documents, parliamentary debates and archival material. We use the conceptual framework of incremental institutional change (i.e. layering, conversion, drift and displacement) for our analysis. Findings: The constitutional program of the mid-nineteenth century laid down the foundations of a ‘private initiative first, government last’-approach to health care financing in the Netherlands. Over the course of 150 years this led to the evolution of a complex layered system of financial arrangements consisting of direct public funding, national, social and private health insurance with complex interdependencies. This was not a conscious strategy, but a result of the fact that the central government in the Netherlands preferred to tackle specific problems in health care financing with very specific measures, so as not to intrude on the trade of civil society and commercial business in health care. Conclusions: Regulatory authority and statist power in and over health care financing is not something that was created through dramatic reform in the Netherlands, but came about through many decades of small, incremental, yet accumulating changes. This provides a case study for further analysis of incremental versus rapid change in health care systems internationally.
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