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Health investigation to address challenges to China's poorest

Date:2016-5-2

A nationwide health investigation of poor people in China is under way, and the results are expected to lead to new policies to aid the country's sickest and poorest citizens.

Statistics show there were 12.56 million households living in poverty directly due to unaffordable medical bills as of 2013, accounting for 42.4 percent of the total poor on record.

Starting in mid-April, the National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) asked local health staff to collect information on these people, including their names, addresses, illnesses and medical costs.

A report will be written up by the end of July for the commission, which will decide how to help them based on the report.

In rural villages, village doctors have been tasked with going door to door to ask about patients' illnesses and fill in the charts. In Ping'an Village in Yudu County of Jiangxi, village doctor Zhang Yingwu started data collection with a septuagenarian woman named Qiu Chengxiu. The woman suffers chronic kidney disease.

"Her family was able to make ends meet when the government offered loans for her son. But last year, her health got worse and cost the family a big fortune," he said.

Jiangxi is one of the poorer provinces in China. By the end of 2014, Jiangxi had 2.76 million people living below the poverty line, and more than half of the poverty was caused by sickness.

Jiangxi health officials said there have been a few suicides of people unable to afford exorbitant medical expenses. In Shangrao County, illness cost fourth-grader Chen Yunfei her childhood.

She lost her father to bone cancer eight years ago, and later her mother left. Her grandfather, her caretaker, committed suicide after being diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2014. He was unwilling to drag the family further into debt.

"Sickness is one of the most formidable obstacles standing in the face of the poorest population in China," said Hu Meiying, a doctor at the Children's Hospital of Jiangxi and a deputy to the National Congress.

"Better health care is the only way to keep people out of poverty," she added.

Medical cooperative programs and insurance can cover as much as 70 percent of medical costs for rural farmers, but for some diseases, the reimbursement rate is less than 30 percent, Hu said.

The Chinese government offers special medical plans for people living in extreme poverty. However, the program has not been expanded to cover all of the population on record as living in poverty. By the end of 2014, only a third of Jiangxi's impoverished people were covered by the plans.

"It all depends on the pocket of the local government. In some poor counties, the maximum the government can pay is only 12,000 yuan for one person, which is far from enough," said Li Jianlin, director of Medical Affairs in the First Affiliated Hospital of Nanchang University.

China's health budget for 2016 is 1.24 trillion yuan, and aiding the poor is a key priority. "The public is calling for increased government spending and effective enforcement of policies. They are the only hopes for the most depleted people," said Li.

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