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The right prescription
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Realizing fair and affordable medical services for 1.3 billion people is a tall order.

But the central government's move to draw up a roadmap to realize that goal within a decade is laudable.

Reform in the 1980s to introduce market mechanisms to hospitals has proved to be undesirable in distributing healthcare resources and access to medical services for people from all walks of life.

Prohibitively expensive medical bills and difficult access to quality medical services remain concerns for the majority of people, disadvantaged social groups in particular.

So never has a reform been so urgently needed.

The most valuable lesson we have learned from failed reforms in past decades is that market mechanisms are not a panacea.

And we can hardly rely on them to produce an ideal healthcare system.

Maintaining the public welfare and social benefits of public hospitals is central to this reform.

More than 200 million residents are yet to be covered by the universal primary healthcare service web.

The reform will bring them under the health umbrella in 10 years, hopefully relieving them of overly burdensome medical bills.

The fact that detailed plans will be put in place to bring migrant rural villagers working in urban areas under basic healthcare insurance shows how ambitious the reform is.

This will require more input from central and local government finance.

That explains why the majority of the 850 billion-yuan ($124 billion) added investment in three years will be spent expanding the healthcare security web and subsidizing medical bills.

And one-third of the money to be invested in hospitals will be spent on basic healthcare facilities in underdeveloped western provinces to achieve balanced distribution.

Policies to encourage the production and use of basic medicines, subsidies for particular expenditure of public hospitals and optimized management, will hopefully make it impossible for doctors to prescribe more expensive, instead of the appropriate, medicines to patients.

The establishment of a leading group headed by Vice Premier Li Keqiang is a sign that the central government has attached great importance to this reform.

So we have enough reason to expect a better and cheaper healthcare service in the years to come.

Yet, the fact the blueprint has been brewed for two years before it was published and the importance central authorities have attached to it also sends signals that more difficulties may lie on the path ahead than anticipated.

(China Daily April 9, 2009)

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