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China plans universal medical care

CHINA yesterday unveiled a comprehensive blueprint for health care reform, kicking off a long-anticipated plan to fix the ailing medical system and ensure safe and affordable health services for the country's 1.3 billion citizens.

The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council, China's Cabinet, jointly issued the reform guidelines after more than two years of intense debate and repeated revisions.

The health care sector is one of the weak links in social welfare - together with under-funded education and social security systems ?? and creates a drag on domestic consumption.

Faced with poor medical coverage and soaring costs, millions of households are forced to set aside savings in case a family member falls ill, rather than spend - an impediment to the country's plan to increase domestic demand to make up for declining exports.

By 2020, China will have a basic health care system that can provide "safe, effective, convenient and affordable" health services to urban and rural residents, according to the program blueprint.

The general guidelines will be supplemented by a more detailed implementation plan for the period through 2011. The State Council announced earlier an intention to invest 850 billion yuan (US$124 billion) for the reforms during the period.

The core principle of the reforms is to provide basic health care as a "public service" to the people, which requires much more government funding and supervision.

The reform guidelines said the government role in "formulating policies and plans, raising funds, providing service and supervising" must be strengthened in order to ensure the fairness of the medical service.

"This is the first time that basic medical services in China are clearly defined as a public service for all citizens, which is part of the essential rights of the people," said Professor Li Ling of Peking University.

The reforms are aimed at "solving pressing problems that have caused strong complaints from the public," the guidelines said, referring to long-standing criticism that medical services are difficult to access and increasingly unaffordable.

The blueprint highlights the establishment of a basic health care system to cover all Chinese citizens.

The government will improve the public health network for disease prevention and control, health education, mother and infant health care, mental health and first-aid services, according to the document.

Public non-profit hospitals will continue to be the dominant providers of medical services, while more priority will be given to the development of grassroots-level hospitals and clinics in cities and rural areas.

Patients will be encouraged to use the localized hospitals and clinics, which can provide more accessible and affordable services, while comprehensive hospitals in big cities will be asked to give more support to small hospitals in terms of personnel, expertise and equipment.

The government plans to set up diversified medical insurance systems so that urban employees, urban residents who do not work and rural residents receive coverage.

The ratio of those covered by the basic medical insurance is expected to surpass 90 percent by 2011.


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