Changing access to health services in urban China: implications for equity

J Gao, S Tang, R Tolhurst, K Rao
Health Policy and Planning 2001, 16 (3): 302-12
The ongoing reform of public institutions and state-owned enterprises in urban China has had a profound impact on the financing, organization and provision of health services. Access to health care by the urban population has become more inequitable. One of the most pressing concerns is that those who have lost jobs have increasing difficulties accessing health care. Using the data from the national household health surveys conducted in 1993 and 1998, this paper presents empirical results of changing utilization of health care among different income groups. Over 16 000 households and 54 000 individuals in the urban areas were randomly selected to collect information on perceived need of and demand for health care and expenditures on the services. The findings show that the income gap between the highest and lowest income groups increased in real terms from 1993 to 1998. There was a significant decline in the population covered by the government insurance scheme (GIS) and the labour insurance scheme (LIS), while the proportion of the population who had to pay for services out-of-pocket increased from 28% in 1993 to 44% in 1998. There was no statistically significant change in self-reported illness in the 2 weeks prior to survey among the study population over the period. While it was found that more people who reported illness from each income group received medical treatment of some kind, there was a decline in seeking care from a health provider. Among those in the lowest income group who reported illness but did not obtain treatment of any kind, nearly 70% (as compared with 38% in 1993) claimed financial difficulty as the major reason in 1998. The use of in-patient services dropped significantly from 4.5% in 1993 to 3.0% in 1998. The decreased use of in-patient services was more serious in the lowest and lower income groups than in higher and highest income groups. The percentage of patients referred for hospital admission but not being hospitalized had a negative relationship with income level. We can conclude from the data analysis that access of the urban population, particularly the poor, to formal health services has worsened and become more inequitable since the early 1990s. Among possible reasons for this trend are the rapid rise of per capita expenditure on health services and the decline in insurance coverage.

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