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China's leaders grapple with rural health crisis

Written by: Staff

LIPING, China, Mar 5 (Reuters) Wu Hanhui grimaced in agony as he waited for packets of herbs and pills from a streetside doctor.

A kidney stone had tormented him for a week, and already much of last year's earnings from his small farm was lost to useless tests and drugs at a small hospital.

Wu had travelled from his village to a primitive private clinic in Liping in southwest China's poor, mountainous Guizhou province, hoping to find a more affordable herbal cure. The big county hospital nearby was too expensive for farmers like him.

''It's hard enough to pay for this,'' he said, gesturing at the small clinic. ''If I could afford it I'd go, but I don't know how much it costs.'' The plight of Chinese farmers, who risk accidents and disease with virtually no medical insurance, has provoked national leaders to move to restore rural medical cooperatives that collapsed during China's rush to embrace market economics, and to establish a nationwide safety net of minimal medical insurance.

Rural health was set to be a central topic at this year's session of Parliament, the National People's Congress, opening today. Doctors and farmers said they welcomed the government's promises.

Last week, a leading government adviser told Parliamentarians that Beijing would spend 4.73 billion yuan on rural medical cooperatives across the country in 2006, a near nine-fold increase on 2005, the China Youth Daily reported.

But experts said that whether the plans work -- or fizzles like previous attempts to bring healthcare to China's 750 million farmers -- will be a long-term test of the central government's policy skills and coffers.

''China's current leadership has shifted the development strategy from an overwhelming emphasis on GDP to some emphasis on equity, including in healthcare,'' said Gu Xin, an expert on national medical policies at Beijing Normal University.

''The problems are that total financing may still be too low to make a fundamental difference, and it's not clear that the poorest farmers who need this most will really benefit from it.'' MORE REUTERS PG VP0840

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