Wishing all a healthy Lunar New Year
By Op Rana (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-01-23 07:37

People now have one more reason to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Coming as it does during these trying economic times, the healthcare reform package is more than a welcome relief.

The fruits of the reform can't be seen in concrete terms, like the $1.42 billion hongbao ("lucky money") distributed among the poor before the Spring Festival. But its impact would be far greater and long-lasting.

The package is impressive: $124 billion to be spent in three years. The aim is loftier: making medical services accessible to a greater number of people by 2011.

Civil society agrees health is one sector that can do with some real government help. And the government has responded, though later than expected, by pledging to expand the sponsored medical insurance cover to 90 percent of the population by 2011. Rural, especially remote, areas have been promised new hospitals and improved medical services, and State-run hospitals stronger administration, operations and supervision to provide better services and treat more people.

But perhaps the most needed change will be the regulation of the drugs distribution and sales system. The system has allegedly become a breeding ground for corruption. People across the social divide allege that thre exists a nexus among drug companies, hospital administrators and doctors. Medicines comprise a large part of a person's medical bill because they cost a lot in the country and because doctors unnecessarily prescribe still more expensive medicines to get bigger kickbacks from the drug companies.

Disputes between hospitals and patients have risen drastically ever since market reforms necessitated the scrapping of the cradle-to-grave healthcare system. Lax supervision has resulted in inflated medical bills, bogus treatments and corruption - and serious allegations of neglect.

Economic reform and opening up have taken the country on a roller-coaster ride of growth. But the demands of the market have extracted a price, too. It is true people's incomes have increased manyfold since the 1980s. But it is also true that the wealth divide has widened to alarming proportions. The deterioration in the environment, caused by the fast-paced economic growth, has given rise to many new diseases. We know education is the key to making people realize that, and encouraging them to take steps to protect the environment.

But market reforms have made education a bigger burden for the low-income group and the poor. Their burden, however, was eased when the government made the nine-year school education free throughout the country in 2007 and extended help in other forms to poor students.

Next in line is the healthcare reform, and the government has taken an important step in that direction. Now it's time for implementing officials to see that the plan is not confined to paper and media talk. It's their duty to ensure that doctors adhere to the catalogue being prepared for the most commonly used drugs.

Breaking the drug company-hospital-doctor "nexus" will not be easy. Ushering in a new, healthy culture, we all agree, will take time. But it can be done sooner rather than later with honesty, commitment and more determination.

As an Indian I know it's easier for the poor to get proper medical treatment in India. This is not to compare the two neighbors, for I wish India could achieve even half of what China has done in the field of education. This is to remind the implementing authorities how difficult it is for the poor to get proper medical treatment in China - and the enormity of their task to correct the situation.

Here's hoping that they rise to the occasion.

Here's hoping no more people are turned away from hospitals.

And here's wishing everyone, as we would in Chinese, xinnian kuaile, shenti jiankang (a Happy New Year and a Healthy New Year).

E-mail: oprana@hotmail.com