More than 100 million people are plunged into poverty every year by illness or "catastrophic" medical bills, the World Health Organisation said on Monday as it launched a global drive for universal health care.
"No one in need of health care should have to risk financial ruin as a result," WHO Director General Margaret Chan said.
The agency's annual report, devoted this year to financing health systems, underlined that the need for universal health coverage "has never been greater" with the economic slowdown, globalisation of disease and ageing populations that need more care for chronic conditions.
Since 2005, the WHO's 192 member states have decreed that everyone should have access to health services and no one should suffer financial hardship as a result.
"On both counts the world is a long way from universal coverage," the report said.
The UN health agency found that in countries that depend heavily on people paying for their services when they seek care "health bills push 100 million people into poverty each year" as many suffer "catastrophic costs."
The most successful health care systems in Europe, Japan, Chile, Mexico, Rwanda and Thailand were based on pooled resources, helping to spread the financing burden, it added.
The report highlighted three "fundamental, interrelated" problems that stopped countries moving closer to universal coverage.
They included an over-reliance on such direct payments, the unavailability of the full range of care and treatment, and the "inefficient and inequitable use" of resources.
"At a conservative estimate, 20 to 40 percent of health resources are being wasted," the report said.
Although the poorest countries are the hardest hit, the report also underlined that disparities even within some of the richest nations also harmed care.
It cited a study by Harvard University in 2007 indicating that medical bills contributed to 62 percent of family bankruptcies.
"It's just not acceptable. And it is not only not acceptable but it's not necessary, because something can be done about it," David Evans, director of health systems financing at the WHO told journalists in Geneva.
The report highlighted the link between low maternal mortality and the presence of a skilled health worker during childbirth, a feature more likely to occur amongst the richest.
Closing the gap in health cover between rich and poor in 49 poor countries would save the lives of more than 700,000 mothers by 2015, while more than 16 million lives would be saved by bridging the poverty gap in infant care, including immunisation.
The WHO insisted there was scope even for poor nations to allocate 15 percent of state spending for health and double the funds available, while international development aid should be brought to promised levels.