China will establish a cooperative healthcare network covering all rural residents by the end of 2010, according to a five-year (2006-2010) government health plan released on Thursday.
Governments at various levels will increase financial investment in rural healthcare and help more farmers to join the program, said the plan, which was adopted last March by the State Council.
Under the cooperative scheme initiated in 2003, a participant pays 10 yuan (US$1.3) a year, while the state, provincial, municipal and county governments supply another 40 yuan (US$5.2) to the fund. Contributors are then entitled to discounts, provided by the fund, on their medical expenses.
Official figures show that 410 million farmers in 1,451 counties - around half of the country's rural population - had joined the scheme by the end of 2006.
The plan said that the government will spend more money on building and upgrading clinics in rural areas.
"The private sector is also encouraged to run non-profit health and medical institutions in counties and villages," the plan said.
The health authorities will dispatch more doctors from cities to the countryside to bridge the medical gap between the cities and countryside, according to the plan.
Statistics show that the Ministry of Health has moved to send roughly 5,500 doctors and nurses from Chinese cities to the rural areas this year to help treat rural patients, introduce new facilities and train local medical staff.
The rural healthcare system was once a core element of Chinese socialism. After the founding of the People's Republic of China in1949, rural people had access to subsidized health clinics run by "barefoot doctors", who were basically middle-school students trained in first aid.
The primitive service, essentially free, played a role in doubling the country's average life expectancy from 35 years in 1949 to 68 years in 1978.
When China began its economic reforms in the early 1980s, the system was dismantled as the country attempted to switch to a market-oriented healthcare system.
The five-year plan said more efforts would be made to tighten drug supervision, increase investment in the public health sector and develop study of China's traditional medicine.
The government will also take measures to encourage individuals and non-government organizations to participate in health and medical services, the plan said.
(Xinhua News Agency June 8, 2007)