- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

BEIJING (AP) - China announced Monday it will make improved health care services available to all its citizens by 2020, taking aim at a system long derided as creaking and inadequate.

China’s government has long been accused of underfunding health care, and the high cost and poor availability of services are among the biggest sources of public discontent. A serious illness can wipe out a family’s life savings and the setting aside of earnings to pay medical fees could put a major damper on domestic consumption.

The reforms aim to boost funding and oversight to provide “safe, effective, convenient and affordable” health services for all 1.3 billion citizens, according to a plan approved by the State Council, China’s Cabinet, a summary of which was released by the official Xinhua News Agency. Currently, only 30 percent of the population is covered.

Under the reforms, hospitals and clinics in the poor countryside and less developed cities would be improved and the price of essential medicines would be capped, Xinhua said.

Disease prevention and control, maternal health, mental health and first aid services would also receive greater attention, it said.

The scheme follows an announcement in January of plans to spend 850 billion yuan ($124 billion) on health care reforms by 2011. That would extend some form of basic health insurance to 90 percent of the population.

China has long struggled to extend some type of universal coverage, but funding such a vast system has been a persistent problem. At present, insurance is mainly provided to working-age urban residents, often through their employers or government agencies.

Xinhua said the reforms envisioned “diversified medical insurance systems” to give coverage to employees in the private sector, non-working urbanites and residents of the poor countryside.

Other details, including how much the program would cost, were not given.

In the early decades after the 1949 founding of the communist state, China’s soviet-style centralized public health system was credited with making huge inroads against infectious diseases and providing basic free care to most citizens.

In the 1980s, however, the system was largely dismantled amid economic reforms and a growing taste for privatization. Seeing a doctor became far more expensive and the gap between rural and urban health care began to grow, undercutting attempts to boost rural incomes.

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On the Net:

Central government Web site: https://www.gov.cn (in Chinese)

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