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County defends free medicare system

OFFICIALS in a remote county in northwest China's Shaanxi Province have defended a pilot scheme offering health care for free.

The number of patients rushing to enjoy the scheme started to wane in May - the third month since its introduction - as people became accustomed to the offer, Zhang Bo, vice director of Shenmu County Health Bureau, told today's Oriental Morning Post.

The free service is so attractive that some residents who had left their homes for a better life outside have started returning, he said.

The scheme has sparked controversy with people concerned that the county, which used to be one of the county's poorest areas, can afford the cost.

Earlier media reports said the Shenmu County Hospital, one of the county's designated hospitals for the scheme, was crowded with people lining up for treatment.

But the crowds are lessening and the cost is dropping, Zhang said.

The scheme cost 9.31 million yuan (US$1.36 million) in May, compared with 12.7 million yuan in April and 9.6 million yuan in March, he said.

The hospitals are also returning to normal with vacant beds available. On June 1, for example, 187 of the 1,314 beds in county hospitals were vacant, Zhang said.

Shenmu County, in northwest Shaanxi, was listed at 92 in the list of wealthy counties in China last year with a revenue of 7.2 billion yuan. It aims to be in the top 10 rich counties by 2020.

County officials are confident about achieving this goal citing abundant coal reserves.

With 100 million tons of coal still underground in the county, it would take 500 years to mine all the coal at the current annual output, officials said.

Last year, Shenmu took the lead and introduced 12-years of free education for local children. Other parts of the country offer nine years of education. Students get a 100-yuan subsidy each month from the county government.


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