China’s National Health Reforms at 10

A doctor checks a young girl in a countryside clinic at Shihao Township on October 13, 2007 in Qijiang County of Chongqing Municipality, China. A doctor checks a young girl in a countryside clinic at Shihao Township in Qijiang County of Chongqing Municipality, China. China Photos/ Getty Images

Asia Health Policy Program Director Karen Eggleston and colleagues examine China’s progress in enhancing financial protection under its social health insurance to achieve universal health coverage.

In 2009, China launched comprehensive health system reforms to address challenges such as increasing rates of non-communicable diseases and population aging, problems with health financing and healthcare delivery, and overall growing health expectations of its people. Promoting universal health coverage by building a social health insurance system was a central pillar of the reforms.

After a decade of system reforms, has the Chinese government made good on its commitment to bolster universal health coverage? In a new article published in a BMJ collection, a team of four co-authors including Karen Eggleston, APARC’s deputy director and director of the Asia Health Policy Program, evaluates China’s progress towards enhancing financial protection of social health insurance and identifies the main gaps that need to be filled to achieve universal health coverage. Their article is part of a special BMJ collection with Peking University that marks the tenth anniversary of China’s health system reforms by analyzing their accomplishments and challenges ahead.

The 2009 reforms aimed to cover the entire Chinese population with one of three (since 2012 one of two) basic social health schemes. To provide added financial protection to patients with critical illnesses, catastrophic medical insurance was initially launched in 2012 and implemented nationally in 2015. Eggleston and her co-authors determine that the expansion of health insurance has had several major successes. First, it improved access to and use of healthcare. In 2011, China achieved near-universal health insurance coverage, with more than 95% of the Chinese population covered by health insurance. Moreover, the annual inpatient hospital admission rate increased from 3.6% in 2003 to 17.6% in 2017, and admission rates for outpatient services were much higher than the global average.

Second, the expansion of health insurance coverage reduced the share of out-of-pocket heath expenses in total health expenditure, thus raising the level of financial protection. Third, catastrophic medical insurance was also effective in supplementing the basic social health insurance schemes and provided extra financial protection to a range of vulnerable groups. By 2017, more than a billion people in China were covered by such insurance.

However, much remains to be done. Out-of-pocket health expenditures remain fairly high and are one of the main reasons for catastrophic health expenses and low financial protection in China, which disproportionately affect deprived populations. Catastrophic medical insurance currently does not target underprivileged people, while medical aid is relatively small in scale and covers only a minority of patients with catastrophic health expenses.

Eggleston and her colleagues conclude that the Chinese government should focus on underprivileged populations within the current insurance system and enhance their financial protection as an important element of targeted poverty alleviation. Such targeting, the researchers emphasize, requires a clear and integrated policy encompassing the basic social health insurance schemes, catastrophic medical insurance, medical aid, and improved healthcare efficiency.