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China Improving Rural Access to Medical Care

"You might have to leave school soon." That message came to Tao Mengling last spring, just half a year before her scheduled college graduation, in a heart-rending letter from her father.

Tao's mother had a meningeal tumor, and it was driving the family deep into debt.

But the story had a happy ending for everyone. The family appeared on CCTV on Monday evening to tell their story. The rural cooperative medical care system, launched in 2003, eased the family's financial burden. The mother got better and the daughter graduated, going on to work in Beijing.

Tao's mother had surgery in Shanghai last June, which cost the family 60,000 yuan (US$8,451), most of it borrowed from relatives. Two months later, her mother got 18,000 yuan in reimbursement from the local medical insurance authority in Changfeng county in eastern Anhui Province.

"It saved my wife and my daughter. Without help from the government, I would have had to quit," said the father, Tao Jihe, who makes a living by making meat buns in Gangji town. His annual income is around 10,000 yuan.

A national health survey in 2003 revealed that about 73 percent of those in rural areas who should have had medical treatment didn't do so for fear of the costs.

The plight of farmers prompted national leaders to move to set up rural medical cooperatives and a nationwide safety net of minimal medical insurance.

The central government began to promote the new cooperative medical care program in 2003. A farmer participant pays 10 yuan a year, while the state, provincial, municipal and county governments jointly contribute 40 yuan for the cooperative fund.

Participants can get partial reimbursement (55 to 65 percent) for hospital expenses. Rates vary according to the illness and the hospital charges.

The rural scheme covered 730 million farmers, or 86 percent of the total, as of the end of September and is anticipated to cover all rural residents this year, Vice Premier Wu Yi told a national conference in mid-February.

The fund paid out about 59.1 billion yuan over the past five years in reimbursements for 920 million claims, according to the health ministry.

However, poorly-equipped clinics and a shortage of medical staff have restricted the quality and availability of care for farmers.

Hou Lu, a member of the 11th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, China's top advisory body, will hand in a proposal at the ongoing conference urging more investment in village hospitals and higher salaries for grassroots medical staff.

"First we build the temple, then we invite the gods," said Wang Jinshan, Party chief of Anhui Province on Saturday.

The province will earmark funds in its 11th five-year plan (2006-2010) to build 1,230 standardized town hospitals and 10,000 village clinics to provide more service for farmers and ease pressure on urban hospitals.

To improve the medical skills of town and village doctors, the province will choose 1,000 experienced doctors annually from city hospitals to work in grassroots hospitals to train rural doctors. The same number of local doctors will go to top city hospitals for training, Wang said.

"I'm confident that our life will be better as the government has been giving us more care," said Tao Jihe.

(Xinhua News Agency March 5, 2008)

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