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Last Updated: Monday, 7 January 2008, 17:00 GMT
China unveils healthcare scheme
By Shirong Chen
China analyst, BBC News

Mothers wait for a medical check-up for their babies in Beijing (file photo)
Medical help can be beyond the reach of many Chinese people
China's health minister has announced an ambitious programme to provide basic healthcare for every citizen in the world's most populous nation.

Chen Zhu said the Healthy China 2020 programme would provide a universal national health service and promote equal access to public services.

Mr Chen was speaking at the national Health Forum in Beijing.

Critics say China's health system falls far behind the needs of the 1.3bn people it is supposed to look after.

Since the economy was opened up 30 years ago, China has gradually abandoned the old communist-style cradle-to-grave welfare system.

As a result, earning money has become the target for many hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.

Seeing a doctor and staying in hospital can be financially crippling for patients and their families in China, especially for the urban poor.

For the tens of millions in the countryside, health provision is even more patchy.

Lack of access and rampant corruption have often been a source of social discontent.

Multiple goals

Now China's Health Ministry has announced a plan to reform the health system and provide a national service for all citizens, including the rural population.

Some commentators have compared the new programme with the National Health Service in Britain.

With the ambitious title of Healthy China 2020, the programme has multiple goals, including improving life expectancy, which this year has reached 73 years.

It will be a massive challenge for the government, but the Health Ministry has been tasked to fill what the Health Minister called "a significant gap between the Party requirements and people's new expectations".

There is an extra reason for China to work on the health system.

As Beijing gears up for the summer Olympic Games, China wants to strengthen disease-monitoring and evaluate any public health hazards.

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