A benchmark of a government's care of its citizens is access to affordable health care, to prevent disease and to treat it. Few, if any, governments can claim a perfect record. But none can be facing shortcomings so challenging as those confronting the mainland government, if only because of the number of people affected. The decline in the mainland's health-care system over the past two decades has been almost as spectacular as its emergence as an economic power. As this newspaper has reported in a three-part series concluding today, radical market reform in the health sector has had terrible social consequences. From major cities to rural villages, cripplingly high costs and a lack of access to treatment are the rule rather than the exception. Leaving aside 130 million urban employees covered by medical insurance, families with the means more often than not have to sell assets or borrow to pay for treatment. Those without the means simply forgo proper treatment, or any treatment at all. The problems with the health system have become a source of public anger, contributing to the 74,000 protests recorded in the mainland last year. The health system has not recovered from the shock of the withdrawal of government funding, which began two decades ago. Hospitals and medical centres were left to pay their own way - by making profits. They soon became part of a growing health-care problem. Even in big cities with ample facilities, getting treatment for common and curable diseases can be a nightmare. Doctors' patient quotas are quickly booked out; costs have soared; overuse of certain medical procedures to increase profit is rife; immunisation and pregnancy care are beyond the means of many in rural areas. Even if a patient has access to doctors and can afford it, quality of service is not guaranteed. At the same time, corruption has flourished, with patients making 'red-packet' gifts for preferential treatment, even though the authorities have moved to stamp out this practice. Our series has told heart-breaking stories of children with cancer facing death because their parents ran out of money for treatment after selling everything they owned; of a sick old man's family leaving it too late to call for a village 'doctor' - a woman trained in basic medical care - because it could not afford the 10 yuan cost; of many rural people having no choice but to die at home because they cannot afford medical treatment. Health care is one of two unhappy chapters of the mainland's reforms that detract from the success story of economic progress. The other is education. The reforms for both were flawed and simply turned hospitals and schools into profit-driven enterprises, rather than making them properly accountable through transparent performance measurement for the provision of essential social services at an affordable cost. The disturbing picture painted by our series underscores the need for urgent action to strike a balance between market-oriented reforms and the provision of essential public services. Signs that the government is moving in that direction are welcome. The official media has begun highlighting the failures. Government sources say the leadership has made it a key task to respond to public grievances over health and education. One idea gaining ground in government circles is to select regional hospitals to provide heavily subsidised basic services, leaving the market to provide more sophisticated services. The profit from these more advanced services would be used to subsidise health care. Hospital officials say this would still require more government funding. But one official has warned there are worries that greater supply would stimulate even more demand. There is a need to forge a consensus. But bold leadership will be required if the mainland is to have a health system that meets the basic needs of its people - let alone their growing expectations.