China to Expand Insurance So Sick Don’t ‘Lose Everything’

Health Minister Chen Zhu
Health Minister Chen Zhu said, said. “From what I have seen, out of the 2,800 county-level hospitals, about 800 do not have a kidney specialist or blood dialysis facilities.” Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

China will expand national health coverage by roping in private insurers and include more major diseases, as it seeks to close the mortality gap between rural and urban residents while trying to contain costs.

“I’ve personally seen as a doctor how, under a system of inadequate health insurance, patients’ families can lose everything paying for the early stages of treatment,” Health Minister Chen Zhu, a Paris-trained hematologist, told reporters at a briefing in Beijing today. “When they run out of resources for the later stages and for the patient’s maintenance, a curable illness becomes untreatable.”

Chen’s comments build on earlier announced plans by China to train more doctors, revamp public hospitals and cut medicine prices to improve services and lower costs for a population that’s aging and also becoming more demanding as disposable incomes rise. Spending on health care in the country is forecast to almost triple to $1 trillion by 2020, McKinsey & Co. said in a report last month.

China also plans to expand the accessibility of essential drugs, Chen said, without elaborating on the steps to be taken. The nation will unveil an expanded essential drugs list before the end of the year and hasn’t decided how many medicines to include, the minister said Sept. 12.

The health ministry, which manages rural residents’ health insurance program, plans to expand per capita funding to at least 360 yuan ($57) by 2015, from 300 yuan this year, it said in a statement issued at the briefing. The amount climbed more than eightfold from 2003 to 250 yuan last year and covered 812 million people, or 95 percent of the rural population, as of June 30, 2012, according to ministry figures.

Disease Coverage

The ministry is also in the process of implementing coverage of 20 major diseases, including child leukemia and lung cancer, under the insurance program, according to the statement.

Coverage by commercial insurers, now present in 140 county-level regions, mainly in the country’s east and central regions, will be available in more districts, Vice Minister Liu Qian said at the briefing. China has 2,853 county-level districts.

“Based on global experience, it is not possible to fully rely on basic medical insurance from the government,” Liu said. “Opening it up to commercial insurance products can be more effective.”

There are many advantages to private insurers managing the coverage program, such as improving service standards and supervision by the government, he said.

Improving Hospitals

China’s national public hospitals also need improvement in their treatment of major chronic illnesses such as diabetes and kidney failure, Chen said.

“A typical mid-term kidney patient needs to go for dialysis three times a week, and it is not possible for those living in rural areas to travel to the city hospitals,” Chen said. “From what I have seen, out of the 2,800 county-level hospitals, about 800 do not have a kidney specialist or blood dialysis facilities.”

China has about 1.5 million patients whose kidneys are damaged to the extent they require life-long dialysis or transplants, according to Shandong Weigao Group Medical Polymer Co. That number may double to 3 million in a decade, spurred by diabetes, which damages the organs, according to the maker of renal-care products based in Weihai City, Shandong Province.

China’s economic growth may slow as cancer and other chronic diseases hurt the labor force, Chen said in an earlier interview.

The proportion of people who are 65 and older in China, on the climb since 1990, is poised to continue rising, increasing to 9.6 percent of the population in 2014, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Per capita annual income for both rural and urban residents tripled in the decade to 2011, to 21,810 yuan and 6,977 yuan respectively, the data show.

— With assistance by Daryl Loo

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