The task of providing the largest population in the world with decent and affordable medical services has always been a challenge for the Chinese Government.
Chinese urban residents enjoyed nearly free access to basic medical resources for almost 40 years after 1949, until a reform was initiated in the 1980s amid the country's transition from a planned to a market economy. The vast rural population had no medical insurance during the four decades. In 2003, China started the New Rural Cooperative Medical Scheme to offer affordable medical services to its rural residents.
In March 2009, a new round of reform was launched with a focus on providing equal access to basic medical services in different regions.
In the following three years, the government invested more than 1.5 trillion yuan ($241 billion) in various programs. By the end of 2011, more than 95 percent of the Chinese population had been covered by basic medical insurance programs—5 percentage points higher than the preset target. In that year, patients made a total of 6.27 billion visits to hospitals, 1.4 billion more than the figure before the start of the new reform.
Meanwhile, the proportion of private spending in total health care costs dropped 20 percentage points compared with a decade ago to 34.77 percent in 2011, while that of public expenditure rose more than 10 percentage points. Patients can now expect 70-90 percent of their medical bills to be reimbursed according to different conditions.
Starting in 2012, the focus of China's medical reform has shifted from laying foundations to boosting the quality of services. Recently, the State Council, China's cabinet, unveiled new policies to consolidate community-level medical reform to further lower patients' financial burden.
According to research by the World Health Organization, only when the proportion of individual payments for healthcare is reduced to 15 to 20 percent of a country's total healthcare bill will it be possible for residents to avoid being dragged into poverty by serious diseases. In China, the proportion is expected to be reduced to less than 30 percent by 2015.
Medical reform is a tough task worldwide. China, though already on the right track, will still require much more effort to accomplish it.