11/19/2004, 00.00
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Poor farmers left to die in their homes

Almost 80% of the ill farmers die at home with no medical care. Central government is promoting a new model of rural health co-operatives and scholarships to medical students from poor areas

Beijing (AsiaNews/Scmp) – More than half of rural residents suffering from major diseases cannot afford medical treatment while 60 to 80 per cent of seriously ill farmers have no choice but to die at home, according to a senior health official. Vice-Minister of Health Zhu Qingsheng said spending on rural care was minimal with only 30 per cent of the total medical expenses budget - which only took up about 1.6 per cent of annual government expenditure - spent on the rural population of at least 800 million.

"Only 30 per cent of the medical expenditure is spent on farmers, who comprise 70 per cent of the population. The urban population, which makes up 30 per cent, enjoys 70 per cent of the medical resources, including government expenditure," Mr Zhu said.

China's Ministry of Health is one of the least powerful and worst funded ministries in the mainland. According to the World Health report, China has one of the worst health care system ranking as the 189th among 191 nations. The government is now banking on a new model of rural health co-operatives, on trial in 310 counties since last year, to help foot some of the medical bills for seriously ill farmers.

Under the scheme, each farmer contributes 10 yuan (almost 1 euro) a year and the government subsidises 20 yuan for each member. Mr Zhu said the scheme was well received in many counties. So far 69 million farmers had joined. The total size of the fund has reached 3.02 billion yuan (nearly 280 million of euro) and 42 million medical bill claims, amounting to 1.4 billion yuan, were reimbursed. On average, the scheme was able to cover 27.25 per cent of hospital expenses.

Mr Zhu said the central government was planning to expand it to 500 counties next year and introduce it nationwide by 2010. He added that national implementation would be gradual, learning from the mistakes of compulsory co-operatives set up in the 1960s that virtually collapsed in the 1980s.

The Ministry of Health had proposed the Ministry of Education offer scholarships to medical students from poor areas on the condition that after they qualify they return to their home towns for a few years. City doctors too, they may have to spend a year in the countryside before their promotion.

The government would also provide training for the 1.2 million rural doctors and gradually remove those who were not up to standard. According to the vice-Minister of Health the government is encouraging diverse forms of hospital ownership to ease the financial crisis: "Private and overseas investment in hospitals is to be welcomed, especially in rural areas".

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