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Universal Health Coverage in China

Posted on Oct 11, 2013 by Ailee Slater ()  | Tags: China, universal health coverage, government-sponsored insurance, China health insurance, China health care

At the moment, health news is dominated by America’s struggle to transform its medical system with the Affordable Care Act. However, the United States is not the only large country currently attempting to move to a scheme of universal health coverage – China, for nearly a decade, has been taking steps to give every Chinese citizen affordable care and insurance. 

China’s interest in improving its national health care largely came about following the SARS epidemic in 2003. That disease outbreak lead to more than 700 deaths around the world, and in China, a huge amount of illness and fatalities was also accompanied by economic woes and a damaged reputation to the nation. Following SARS, global businesses pulled out of China, many professionals both expatriate and local left the country, and Chinese exports were damaged. 

SARS highlighted an important link between health and economy, and since that epidemic, China’s investment in health care has grown. The World Health Organization has estimated that in 2002, the Chinese government spent just $19 USD per person on health care. By 2011, however, China was spending $155 per person. Bloomberg reports that during the past decade, China has put around $180 billion toward transforming the nation’s health care system – from 2003 to 2009 the amount of insured Chinese citizens tripled, and at the moment an astounding 99 percent of people living in rural conditions have access to basic health coverage. 

Extending medical insurance to more people, especially those who are poor or live outside of big cities, is an important step in China’s overall goal to modernize its inward workings and join the global economy. The struggle with SARS certainly proved that a healthy populace is absolutely necessary to keep investment and business strong, both within the nation and in terms of foreign trade. What’s more, lifestyle-related diseases are growing in China – around 114 million Chinese people have been diagnosed with diabetes, and the American Medical Association reports that of all the people in the world currently living with a disease, one third of them are in China. Therefore, to keep the populace healthy and productive as well as to avoid another dangerous pandemic, government-assisted insurance is very much a necessity. 

Universal health care is especially important in China, where a huge number of citizens cannot afford care; neither preventative treatment nor medical help in the case of an emergency. The average income of a Chinese family living in a rural area is around $1,600 USD, and huge gaps in income across the nation mean that many families are living on even less. Minimum wage regulations in China were not outlined until 2004, and again, these figures vary throughout the country. Numbers released this summer by China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security showed that in the central Chinese province Anhui, minimum wage was just $164.9 USD per month. 

In September, Bloomberg reported on a family living in rural China, and what happens when Chinese people without much money experience a medical emergency. The family’s daughter, Wang Xiaobu, was hit by a motorcycle outside of her house, and was taken to the village clinic with a bleeding head injury. The clinic, staffed by only an untrained attendant, was unable to do anything more than apply rudimentary bandaging. One decade ago, Wang Xiaobu’s story would have ended at the village clinic – unable to afford further transportation or skilled care, the toddler’s parents would have had no choice but to return home and tend to their daughter themselves. 

Thankfully, Wang Xiaobu wasn’t hit by a motorcycle ten years ago. She was hit by a motorcycle in 2013, when her family had already been given a health insurance policy thanks to national health reform. With this government-sponsored health coverage, Wang Xiaobu’s parents were able to drive her to a city hospital 75 miles away, where she received antibiotics, stitches, and was examined for more serious internal injuries. Wang Xiaobu’s mother has said that without the help from the government’s universal coverage, the family would have been unable to afford their daughter’s treatment. The hospital bill came to $654 USD, and with insurance, that figure was reduced to $392 – a much more palatable sum for the family. 

Although today many higher-income Chinese families opt to purchase private insurance, for many years families who could afford it would simply put aside money every month as a kind of personal, health care savings. China is hoping that with better and cheaper access to health insurance through government programs, these families will purchase coverage instead of squirreling money away in a savings account; thus aiding the economy and leading to lower health care prices for everyone.


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