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China to pilot medical reform plan
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China's long-awaited medical reform plan is to be piloted this year "in selected regions," embarking on a path of medical and health development "with Chinese characteristics", Health Minister said at a national health conference that concluded Tuesday.

"The major task this year is to pilot key issues listed in the newly-outlined medical reform plan in some selected regions to accumulate experience before a nationwide implementation," Chen said.

He did not explain how the regions would be selected and failed to give the number of regions that would fall under the pilot scheme.

Chen outlined China's new medical reform plan, which aims to provide universal basic services at reasonable prices, in a report to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature, in late December last year.

"Relevant guiding opinions and coordinated documents on the reform plan have taken shape," Chen said, noting that the government will soon solicit opinions on the reform plan from the public.

Vice Minister of Health Gao Qiang said at the conference that the country's medical and health development will "follow a path with Chinese characteristics", the first time the government has put forward this notion.

"Imitating foreign models blindly in medical reforms will only lead to mistakes," Gao said.

The scheme features basic concepts including adhering to the orientation of serving the people, ensuring the "non-profit" nature of public medical institutions, cutting hospitals' involvement in drug sales, increasing governmental responsibility and input, and establishing a basic medicare network for the whole population, according to Gao.

"The aim is to provide safe, effective, convenient and low-cost public health and basic medicare service to both rural and urban citizens," Gao said.

The new plan failed to impress some officials present.

Liao Xinbo, vice director of the health department in Guangdong, said the new plan was "not very exciting" and was still not feasible.

Liao, who had participated in the discussions on the plan, said not much new content was added into the plan.

He said some ideas had already been implemented or put on trial by some medical institutions but some ideas that failed have still continued to receive support.

But the local official admitted increasing government responsibility and input was the most exciting part of the scheme, though coordinated and detailed plans are needed to make it feasible.

The scheme also promises to "gradually reduce hospitals' involvement with drug sales to cut drug prices," noting that any resulting shortfall could be met by government subsidies and "a reasonable rise in medical service fees".

Many citizens voiced their concerns over this "reasonable" rise, fearing the price increase will only serve to offset the drop in drug prices and impose an equal burden on the public.

A netizen named Tiandadida said in forum on Sina.com.cn: "I'm afraid drug prices may not be cut but medical service fees will surely shoot up."

Growing public criticism of soaring medical fees, lack of access, poor doctor-patient relations and the low coverage of the medicare system compelled China to launch a new round of medical reform.

According to a latest survey by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) on "unsafe" factors upsetting the public, rising medical costs have become the top concern among Chinese people,

China first started its medical service reform in 1992 to abolish a system under which the government covered more than 90 percent of expenses.

However, soaring medical costs plunged many rural and urban Chinese back into poverty. Currently, there were about 400 million people around the country without any healthcare coverage, according to the Ministry of Health.

The new reform plan promised an initial basic medicare network would be set up by 2010 to reduce the widening gap of medical services among different income groups and regions. By 2020, China would establish a basic medicare network for the whole population.

(Xinhua News Agency January 9, 2008)

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