The importance of equal access to basic healthcare service for all citizens was Monday stressed for the first time by the top health official.
Minister of Health Chen Zhu said all people share the same right to basic healthcare regardless of age, gender, occupation, and economic status or where they live.
"This is China's top healthcare strategy," Chen told a two-day national meeting that started Monday.
It's the first time China's top heath official has acknowledged the importance of equity in basic healthcare in the wake of mounting criticism over huge gaps in access to health service between rural and urban residents.
Dr Hans Troedsson, the World Health Organization (WHO) China representative, told China Daily that his organization greatly appreciates the statement of the Ministry of Health (MOH), which he said shows that the WHO and the Chinese government share the same views.
"Recognizing the importance of equity through universal access to basic healthcare services is indeed in line with WHO recommendations to the government as part of our support on health sector reforms in China," he said.
Currently, each urban employee accumulates 1,000 yuan (US$137) every year in the medical insurance fund, while the figure is only 50 yuan (US$6.8) for farmers under the rural cooperative medical scheme (RCMS), launched in 2002 to provide subsidized healthcare for farmers.
MOH statistics show that the per capita medical cost of urbanites in 2006 was twice that of their rural counterparts, with the national average at 749.8 yuan (US$102).
By the end of 2007, of the country's 5.7 million medical workers, only 950,000 worked in the countryside serving more than 800 million or 60 percent of the total population.
In a report last month outlining the framework and guidelines for medical reform, Chen acknowledged the allocation of limited medical resources had been "skewed" in favor of major hospitals in cities.
The minister then promised to set up a framework for basic medicare network by 2010 to reduce the widening gap in medical services among different income groups and regions, with the final goal of providing every citizen with safe, effective, and low-cost healthcare services.
To realize the goal, the government is obliged to play a dominant role in the administration and supervision of the health sector, and constantly beef up input, said the report.
Last year, the central government contributed 63.1 billion yuan (US$8.6 billion) to the health sector, up 277 percent over 2006, according to official statistics.
However, it is still a far cry from the total national medical expenditure in 2006 -- 985 billion yuan (US$135 billion), or 4.67 percent of GDP.
Chen Monday pledged more funding from the central government this year.
In addition, the RCMS will cover all Chinese rural population within the year, he said. By the end of last September, 86 percent of farmers were under the umbrella.
Also, the government plans to boost the annual contribution from the current 40 yuan (US$5.50) to 80 yuan (US$11) each in the RCMS fund.
The urban basic medicare policy will be further expanded to include another 30 million by the end of 2008, it said.
The minister also said that the blueprint on health reform and some accompanying documents are more or less ready.
"The State Council is soliciting experts' views to finetune them," Chen said.
The reform, a challenge faced by all countries, should be no quick fix, but a step-by-step, time-consuming, and complicated process, Vice Premier Wu Yi told the meeting, adding: "Patience is needed."
(China Daily January 8, 2008)