Chinese pin hope on health care reform
Updated: 2009-01-22 19:22


BEIJING -- China's multi-billion yuan health reform plan has aroused people's hope for changes to its creaking medical system, which has long been a key source of public discontent.

The plan, passed on Wednesday by the State Council, or Cabinet, promised to spend 850 billion yuan (US$123 billion) by 2011 to provide a universal primary medical service to the country's 1.3 billion people.

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Goals of the reforms include a minimum 90 percent coverage of medical insurance, a system of "basic medicines" covered by the insurance, an improved network of local-level clinics, a better public health system and improved services in public hospitals.

The plan, the draft of which was widely criticized by the public as being too general and full of empty words, received positive response from most scholars.

"It is much more specific than the draft," Cai Renhua, dean of the School of Public Health of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University told Xinhua on Thursday. "It sets clear goals and money to be spent."

"But we still need a detailed timetable. We need to know how the plan is to be implemented," he said.

According to media reports, an implementation scheme (2009-2011) was adopted by the State Council on Wednesday along with the plan. But so far, the full texts of the plan and the scheme have not been publicized.

The health care sector is one of the weak links in China's social welfare system. Soaring medical fees, a lack of access to affordable medical services, poor doctor-patient relations and low medical insurance coverage compelled the government to launch the new round of reforms.

Li Ling, professor with the National School of Development of the Peking University, said the announcement of multi-billion health care investment against the background of the financial crisis, will help stimulate China's domestic demand.

"People's purchasing capacity will increase if they don't have to worry about expensive medical fees," she said.

Calling the new plan "a good new year gift (from the government)", Li said the upcoming reforms coincide with China's efforts to build a harmonious society. "It will be a milestone during China's transition to a modern country."

China began reforming its medical system in 1992 as it tried to abolish a system under which governments covered more than 90 percent of medical expenses to switch to a market-oriented one.

Li, who had been invited to draft the reform plan in 2006, said the reform of public hospitals will be at the heart of the reforms.

Due to a lack of government funding, public hospitals have, for years, mainly operated using profits from medical services and drug prescriptions.

Health Minister Chen Zhu said two weeks ago that China aims to increase government subsidies to public hospitals to cut their involvement with drug sales so as to cut drug prices, medical supply prices and physical check-up fees.

Chen said the government will select several cities to try out reforms in public hospitals. The trial period will last until 2011.

Chinese netizens responded to the reform plan with mixed views. At the news channel of the, netizens left more than 12,000 comments in less than one day.

Some left positive responses, but many continued to pour out complaints about high medical fees and poor medical services.

"It (the criticism) is understandable," professor Cai Renhua said. "So far we only know the goals and principles of the reform. People need to see substantial benefits."

Some netizens called for free medical services for all Chinese citizens. Professor Li said a "free for all" scheme is "impossible" in China. "Even for developed counties, it is difficult."

Li said health care reform is a difficult task around the world. "I am glad to see that the government is determined to push forward the reform, which has the public good as its goal."