Touts thwart top-level reforms at China's public hospitals


China's repeated efforts to reform the public hospital system by getting patients to smaller clinics first and curbing graft in a system under intense demand and supply strains has met its match in swarms of touts who promise quick appointments in exchange for cash.

Reuters reports that a day in the life of one of these touts operating outside of Peking Union hospital in Beijing is in effect open defiance of a system that still has hundreds lining up each day to see a doctor to no avail.

The news agency profiled one of the "scalpers" named Yu Wei, who along with others in the trade illegally buys appointment tickets from hospital staff, and sells them days in advance--leaving most of the people in line to come back another day, repeatedly.

Reuters said the "special care" appointment tickets can fetch RMB850 ($131), which scalpers share with hospital staff.

The practice flies in the face of official statements on reform, including one this week from China's Premier Li Keqiang that public hospital reforms are leading to transparency in services and in drug sales.

Li also said that healthcare reforms would soon extend to all urban public hospitals and smaller centers, including fully abolishing markups of drugs bought on site, and said pay needs to be reviewed.

"Apart from (a) reduction in drug prices, the merit pay system in medical institutions should be improved by taking steps such as increasing the medical service fee," Li said. "An incentive mechanism linking medical staff's responsibilities and work performance needs to be set up to highlight their technical and labor value."

At stake is public confidence in the healthcare reforms as China attempts to expand health insurance universally and cover more chronic diseases while keeping overall costs in check.

That process was not helped by an online video earlier this year of a woman standing in a hospital line with her sick mother yelling at the touts, Reuters noted.

Reuters said the sales illegal sales have also not gone unnoticed by authorities with more than 200 touts arrested this year in Beijing. But the underlying issues of patient loads for the limited number of qualified doctor and poor pay have aided the practice.

"Scalpers are a real headache for us," a spokeswoman for the Peking Union hospital surnamed Chen told Reuters.  "There's a crackdown on them, but it's a hard problem to cure."

- here's the story from Reuters