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Promoting Role of Private Sector

He Wei treasures his memories of the meeting he had with Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, the guru of micro-finance.

One point from their conversation that day has stayed with the ophthalmologist: "We are both serving poor people. I take care of their pockets, while you take care of their eyes."

And care he does. He rates his work with impoverished blind people above his recently becoming a CPPCC member in the hierarchy of his accomplishments.

He, who is also director of the Shenyang-based He Eye Hospital, has joined his colleagues in examining the eyes of some 470,000 people, 80 percent of whom are residents of poverty-stricken rural areas, and the rest poor urbanities.

He got his PhD in ophthalmology in Japan, and since his return from China 13 years ago he and his colleagues have removed many cataracts at discounted prices or even for free. Nearly 60,000 of the people they have treated have regained eyesight, he said.

As a new CPPCC member, He is eager to talk about the role private hospitals play at panel discussions on healthcare.

During his first face-to-face talk with Vice Minister of Health Gao Qiang, He was straightforward about how the State should work with private hospitals.

"Private hospitals should be treated the same as public ones in terms of market access and taxation. But a set of clear-cut rules on private hospital management must be drawn up. And clear definitions of for-profit and public-service hospitals are needed," he said.

"Private hospitals also provide public services."

He's arguments must have been persuasive. He said Gao nodded and promised to treat private hospitals equally, as an important part of the country's healthcare sector, and make fair competition in the medical sector possible.

"Ownership should not be the sole characteristic in determining a hospital's role, whether it is for-profit or not," Gao said.

As the founder of the He Eye Hospital, China's first non-profit private hospital, He said he has taken a personal interest in the subject.

Registered as a non-profit, privately owned public service institution, his hospital is tax-exempt on the condition that most of its revenue goes to charity and social services. It was established in 1995.

"I want to challenge the common view that private hospitals serve the rich," he said. "I must assure people that the poor receive quality medical services at a much lower price."

For example, he said a public hospital charges 8,000 yuan (US$1,129) to 10,000 yuan to remove a cataract, while his hospital charges a minimum of 3,000 yuan.

"I've been doing something right and innovative," He said.

He said that his hospital has built a strong reputation over the past 13 years. It has slowly expanded from a single building into an eye-care complex comprising four hospitals, a medical school, eye-care product retail outlets and a manufacturing plant.

The school offers courses to some 1,000 students, and the on-site plant supplies appliances to the hospitals, He said.

(China Daily March 14, 2008)

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