About 109 million people in China had medical insurance by the end of 2003, and the figure is expected to exceed 115 million this year.
According to a national medical insurance workshop, more than 81.3 percent of the country's major cities have issued regulations guaranteeing medical coverage to the unemployed.
Wang Dongjin, vice minister of Labor and Social Security, said China would expand coverage this year to workers in the private sector as well as to employees at state-owned enterprises and retirees.
"We will also explore the medical insurance options for over 100 million migrant rural workers," Wang said. About 49 percent of workers at state-owned factories took out medical insurance as of last November.
China's medical care system was established when the country was founded in 1949. Medical expenses were generally covered by the enterprises or institutes for which people worked.
However, with the country's economic reform, medical fees have become an increasingly heavy burden on the government.
In 1998, China started a nationwide reform of medical coverage in an attempt to lessen the government's burden.
That led to a system requiring individual contributions from citizens and less from the government.
Workers at state-owned enterprises are the first group of beneficiaries of the medical insurance system.
The government also is promoting a cooperative medical care system in rural areas on a trial basis.
In the countryside of Jiangyin City, east China's Jiangsu Province, each farmer contributing 10 yuan a year to a local cooperative is entitled to 20,000 yuan (US$2,500) of coverage.
Anhui Province, neighboring Jiangsu, began using the cooperative system in 1999, for which participants pay an annual fee of 10 yuan, which goes into a fund to which the government contributes twice as much.
Qin Chaowang, a 57-year-old farmer from Gangkou Village of Ningguo City in Anhui, recently received 9,887 yuan as reimbursement for his heart operation.
"It's such a good thing I never dreamed of," said the farmer, who had delayed the heart operation for three years due to financial difficulties.
With an average income one-third that of urban dwellers, farmers are likely to suffer financial crises during times of illness as medical bills can be very costly, said Chen Xiwen, deputy director of the Development Research Center of the State Council, China's Cabinet.
(Xinhua News Agency February 21, 2004)