Health care costs still a heavy burden for mainlanders, says health minister

Despite four years of reforms and HK$1.4 trillion in government funding, citizens' medical bills remain too heavy, health minister tells conference

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2013, 6:55am

Health care is still too expensive on the mainland despite almost four years of reform, Health Minister Dr Chen Zhu said yesterday.

At the annual national health work conference, Chen said reform efforts needed to improve if the heavy financial burden on individuals was to be lifted, China News Service reported.

The central government kicked off a mammoth healthcare reform effort in April 2009, pledging to allocate an extra of 850 billion yuan (HK$1.04 trillion) in government funds to the healthcare system over three years to address the problem of inaccessible and unaffordable healthcare. Some measures, such as improving service in public hospitals, implementing an essential drug catalogue system to bring down drug prices and expanding the insurance network have been mapped out.

Since then, the mainland has established the world's largest medical insurance network, with 95 per cent of the population - farmers, urban employees and urban residents - enjoying basic medical insurance.

"But the burden on residents is still heavy," Chen said, citing the example of reimbursing money spent on drugs. Although three-quarters of the money spent on drugs listed in insurance policies could be reimbursed, only half actually was, he said, and the problem was made worse because of lax controls on the use of many drugs that were not listed.

Premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang said at the weekend that more financial support was needed for medical reform.

The average mainlander spent 1,820 yuan on medical expenses in 2011, and had to foot just over a third of the bill themselves. The 12th five-year plan for the health sector said individuals should not have to pay more than 30 per cent of their medical expenses by 2015. It said international practice showed that paying 20 per cent of healthcare costs was not a heavy burden for individuals but would still allow the development of an efficient basic medical insurance system.

"The key to solving unaffordable healthcare is to strictly control the use of drugs, equipment and technology that are beyond the scope of the insurance policy," Chen said. "Some drugs and equipment use will gradually be included in insurance policies and reimbursed, but we are determined not to allow excessive use of them when they are not included in insurance policies."

Admitting that high drug prices had become a target of criticism and an important factor in the souring of the doctor-patient relationship, Chen pledged to improve the centralised drug bidding system to rein in prices.