China's Unfair Distribution of Health Care Resources

By Xiewang, Radio Free Asia
February 7, 2006 12:00 am Last Updated: February 7, 2006 12:00 am

A woman eagerly awaits the results of a blood pressure check courtesy of the Chinese Ministry of Public Health and the World Health Organization's Beijing representative. The event is designed to promote better health awareness among the young and old alike, especially those with no formal health coverage. (AFP)

During the 2006 National Health Workers Conference, Gao Qiang, China's Minister of Health, admitted that the cost of medical treatment was rising because some medical institutions constantly expand their facilities to increase economic returns. This phenomenon has made it difficult for the public to obtain medical care. There were also instances where hospitals would not accept a patient who was gravely ill because they couldn't afford to pay.

A report from Chinese Scientists Discussion Forum in Beijing entitled “The Challenge to the Current Chinese Public Health System” pointed out that the unfair distribution of Chinese medical resources could be categorized in two broad issues.

One is the difference between urban and rural areas. Thirty percent of the population lives in urban areas, which consumes up to 80 percent of the public health resources. However, the rural areas, with 70 percent of the total population, receive only 20 percent of the total public health resources.

The other issue is the uneven distribution of health insurance. Only 15 percent of the population has health insurance. In China, even those who can afford to pay medical expenses are crammed into one hospital room with at least ten other patients. However, the hospital rooms used for high-level officials are equipped with air conditioning, refrigerators, televisions, etc.

Chinese Health Minister Gao Qiang (Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese Health Minister Gao Qiang (Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images)

In China, there are many retired government officials enjoying special treatment, such as, government-paid housing, chauffeurs, service personnel, and many other special privileges. According to their rank, some are given free medical treatment and free travel. Retired high-level officials have become the new nobility in China.

Cai Chongguo, a China labor issues activist who resides in France, pointed out that Chinese people were extremely dissatisfied with the government's medical policies.

Cai Chongguo said, “China's medical problem is so vast that it aggravates the whole nation. The anger can be seen in newspaper articles more often than ever before. Even the Communist regime admitted last year that the medical system reform has basically failed. At first, we could see the public medical services in the rural areas go bankrupt, which led to the situation where farmers would not have the money to seek medical help from non-subsidized facilities. Thus, they either didn't see a doctor or migrated to an urban area.

On the other hand, in the cities we would see many big hospitals rated with four or five stars like hotels. The larger hospitals even had supermarkets and high-class restaurants in them. Patient rooms are rated as high-class, middle-class, or lower-class. The costs of a high-class patient room are of course paid by taxpayers, since government officials, especially high-level ones, do not need to pay so much.”

The report from the Chinese Scientist Discussion Forum in Beijing quoted one statistic. It showed that the Chinese citizen's medical expenditures have increased from an average of 11 yuan (approximately US$1.35) in 1978 to 442 yuan (approximately US$54.5) in 2002. However, the government's share of the total health costs has decreased from 32 percent to 15 percent. In China, people would often live in poverty because they are unable to pay for the medical care that would enable them to have a job.

The report pointed out the inequitable distribution of medical resources; 87 percent of the farmers pay their own medical expenses. Some farmers expressed hopelessness because the cost of a single visit to the hospital can equal one year's income.

When asked about the present Chinese public medical service system, Ms. Liao Tianqi of China Information Center – a US based nonprofit organization that conducts research in China said, “China's medical insurance system is in a very bad state. According to the World Health Organization – out of 191 countries, China is ranked at 144, which is really, really bad.”

From a financial angle, China is listed as one of the worst four countries and ranked at 188. The medical system is made worse because those who can afford the expenses receive treatment at no cost and the bills are paid with taxpayer's money. Some may even be hospitalized for months or a year.

Those who are rich, with a higher social standing or power, have their medical expenses paid for. Those who are poor, even though they might be so ill that they die right at the hospital entrance, do not get to see a doctor. This is the severe inequality in access to health services.”

A poor woman breast-feeds her baby outside the Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, 06 August 2005 in southern Tibet. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
A poor woman breast-feeds her baby outside the Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, 06 August 2005 in southern Tibet. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

In December 2005 the Ministry of Labor and Social Security of Hubei Province examined the health of 14,000 rural workers. The survey found that 40 percent of the rural workers continued to work when they were sick. The strategy of the workers with illnesses is: wait first, endure second, and take medicine third. In 2005, China's National People's Political Consultative Conference revealed that there is one government official for every 26 people; and, the national medical resources are at the disposal of such a massive number of government officials

In China, only 15 percent of the population has access to medical insurance, and the majority of the 85 percent without insurance are unemployed.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that according to a 1998 document published by the Chinese Health Department, 30 percent of childhood deaths in the rural areas occurred at home because the parents could not afford to pay for medical treatment.

Last December, the Blue Book , published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, indicated that nearly 66 percent of Chinese interviewed did not have medical insurance. One quarter of them forgo medical treatment because they can't afford it. Many Chinese can't afford to be sick, attend school, or buy a house. Some Chinese view medical expenses, the cost of an education, and the unaffordability of housing as the three big burdens.

Some information for this report was provided by The Epoch Times