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November 14, 2009

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Coal-rich county is a utopia for health care

AT 80, Mao Yuyie lay on a hospital bed for the first time without having to worry about her medical bill.

The peasant in northwest China's Shaanxi Province was among the first in China to enjoy almost completely free medical care, thanks to a new policy employed by her home county government in Shenmu.

The coal-rich county with 400,000 people near the sprawling deserts of western China has earmarked up to 180 million yuan (US$26.4 million) of its revenue annually to cover residents' medical expenses.

Under the new policy, inpatients can get 90 percent of their medical expenses refunded, and outpatients can get an annual maximum refund of 60,000 yuan, said the county's top official, Guo Baocheng.

Guo, secretary of the Shenmu County Committee of the Communist Party of China, said the patients were free to choose any of the three county hospitals. But for serious cases such as terminal cancer, organ transplants and other critical surgery, they could also choose leading hospitals in the provincial capital, Xi'an, or Beijing.

The county had expanded a preferential treatment, previously enjoyed only by government employees, to all residents, including peasants and the unemployed.

When the policy took effect on March 1, it was widely criticized as a spur-of-the-moment idea and "exuberance" by the county government.

Many people still doubt whether the policy will last, because even in the country's most developed regions, peasants and unemployed urban dwellers can only get up to 50 percent of their medical expenses refunded.

However, Mao, who used to spend her meager pension on cheap, over-the-counter medicines to treat her hypertension and heart disease, said the new policy has saved lives. "How come people criticized the government for such a good policy?"

It's all because people know too little about Shenmu, Guo said.

"The county's revenue reached 7.2 billion yuan last year, of which 1.7 billion was designated as local fiscal expenditures," Guo said.

This year, Guo said the county's revenue would top 10 billion yuan. "The 150 million to 180 million yuan government spending on public medical services is no problem."


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