Reasserting the state in Viet Nam Health Care and the
logics of market-Leninism
Jonathan D. London
City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
The collapse of Viet Nam’s state-socialist economic institutions in the late 1980s occasioned an almost complete inversion of the
socialist principles that had guided health policy under the Communist Party of Viet Nam since the 1950s. Since the early 1990s,
however, the Vietnamese state has reasserted its roles in the health sector. These reassertions have been of two major types. Through
redistributive reassertions the state has sought to ensure a basic ﬂoor of health services for all Vietnamese and bolster its subjective
legitimacy, even as public spending on health has remained conspicuously low. Through its accumulative reassertions, the state has
transformed ‘public’ health facilities into sites of economic accumulation, thereby responding to the state’s weak extractive
capacities and gaining political support from within the public health systems. Overall, the article likens reassertions of the state in
Viet Nam’s health sector represent a contemporary instance of a Polanyian ‘‘double movement,’’ albeit within the context of a
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Up until the late 1980s, the Communist Party of Viet Nam (CPV) promoted the development of an entirely state-
ﬁnanced health system that promised health services as a right of citizenship. But the collapse of Viet Nam’s state-
socialist economic institutions in the late 1980s occasioned a dramatic scaling back of these ambitions. In 1987, Viet
Nam’s government permitted limited private provision of heath care and in 1989 adopted a constitutional provision
that permitted public heath care providers to charge fees. Public spending on health then declined rapidly as a
proportion of total health spending and by the early 1990s, 80 percent of all health expenditure was estimated to be out-
of-pocket. Thus, in the span of a few years, the principles governing payment for heath care in Viet Nam almost fully
The history of health care in Viet Nam since the late 1980s is, however, a good deal more complex and interesting
than a simple story of ‘commodiﬁcation.’ Viet Nam during the late 1980s and early 1990s did indeed experience
catastrophic retrenchment in the health sector, the marketization of many aspects of heath care, and the ill effects of
these processes. But since the early 1990s, the Vietnamese state has also reasserted its roles in the health sector. In this
essay, I explain the nature and signiﬁcance of these reassertions.
The analysis is organized in three sections. In the ﬁrst section, I provide historical background on Viet Nam’s health
system and explain how the erosion of Viet Nam’s planned economy affected both the principles and institutions
governing the provision and payment for heath care and Viet Nam’s health status. In the second section I show,
however, that alongside policies that have shifted the costs of heath care from the state onto households, the CPV has
pursued certain redistributive reassertions of the state. These redistributive reassertions, which began as small and
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mainly legitimacy-seeking targeted-programs, have gradually expanded in their forms, scale, and scope. Through its
redistributive reassertions, the Vietnamese state has sought to provide universal access to health services, even as the
state’s success in doing so has been decidedly mixed. Thought the state continues to profess its commitment to
ensuring access to heath care, public health expenditure remains low, even in comparison to other countries in Viet
Nam’s same income group.
In the third section, I explain how Viet Nam’s government has also overseen certain accumulative reassertions of
the state in the health sector. By accumulative reassertions, I mean various informal and formal measures the
Vietnamese state has taken to promote the health sector as a site of economic accumulation. In part, these efforts
represent the government’s announced intent: to reduce the dependence of the health system on the central budget.
However, accumulative reassertions of the state have the practical effect of commercializing health care and have
created incentives to place private interests before public health. The government’s recent move to promote further
(and weakly regulated) decentralization in the health sector threatens to intensify these perverse incentives.
In this essay, I demonstrate that reassertions of the state in Viet Nam’s health sector have responded to the different
and sometimes contradictory imperatives of market-Leninism (London, 2003, 2009).
In market-Leninist regimes,
communist parties adopt market institutions and employ market-based strategies of accumulation while retaining
Leninist principles of political organization. On the one hand, the subjugation of health care to market principles and
out-of-pocket payments contradicts the historically rooted, self-legitimating ideologies of the communist party and
creates pressures on the state to provide various forms of social protection through redistribution. On the other hand,
low public health expenditure and the Leninist state’s increasing dependence on resources garnered through market-
based accumulation reinforces the desire of the lower levels of the state to exploit market opportunities and creates
pressures toward the further commercialization and commodiﬁcation of heath care. While total health spending in Viet
Nam continues to raise, improvements in health status continues to be uneven across regions and different segments of
1. Health sector retrenchment and its consequences
Viet Nam’s health system is the product of a four-decade effort to build a comprehensive state-ﬁnanced national
health system; the subsequent erosion of that system in the 1980s; and the intended and unintended consequences of
health policies introduced since the late 1980s. The rapid economic growth that Viet Nam has experienced since the
early 1990s has permitted rapid increases in total health expenditure. But low public expenditure combined with other
state policies have made access to health services contingent on cash payments, while spatially uneven development
and weak health sector governance have contributed to sharp divergences in the costs, qualities, and distributions of
heath care services across different regions and segments of the population. Today, Viet Nam’s health policies aim to
combine state, household, and insurance sources of ﬁnance in a way that would ensure all Vietnamese access to health
1.1. Building a state-socialist health system
The lineage of contemporary Viet Nam’s health system can be traced back to the origins of the Communist Part of
Viet Nam (CPV) and its efforts to develop a revolutionary socialist state. From its formation in the 1920s and 1930s to
the declaration of Viet Nam’s independence in Ha
:i in 1945, the CPV’s campaign for national independence and
socialist revolution included calls for the development of a more effective, broad-based, and equitable health system.
Under the yoke of colonialism, heath care was not widely available. The CPV’s defeat of the French in 1954 created
conditions for the establishment of an independent state north of the 17th parallel – the Democratic Republic of Viet
Nam (DRV) – and with it the development of a state-ﬁnanced national health system. Between 1954 and 1975, in the
face of war and acute economic shortage, the CPV managed to build a publicly ﬁnanced health system that covered
much of the territory under its control.
In developing the health system, Viet Nam’s Ministry of Health (MOH) began with campaigns to improve
sanitation and provide vaccinations in rural areas (MOH, 2008). It also developed a health network of clinics and
J.D. London / Policy and Society 27 (2008) 115–128116
The journalists Nicolas Kristof and Cheryl WuDunn (1994) were ﬁrst to use the term market-Leninism in a published work. I arrived at the term
independently in the mid-1990s and have sought to specify its conceptual, theoretical, and practical meaning.
For a lengthier analysis, see London (2003).
hospitals and a referral system based on western models of medicine and socialist models in particular. Preventive
health and basic health services were to be carried out in commune-level health stations (CHSs) and in district ward-
level health centers in urban areas (Hoang, 1965; Bryant, 1998). Curative services were to be delivered through state
hospitals administered at the district, provincial, and central-government levels.
Though threadbare in quality and scope and incomplete in geographical coverage, the development of this state-
ﬁnanced health system contributed to historic reductions in mortality and morality in the civilian population,
remarkable accomplishments given that they occurred in wartime and in the context of economic scarcity (Merli &
London, 2002). After 1975, the CPV extended the health network southwards, incorporating existing hospitals and
personnel, while expanding the health bureaucracy and service provision in previously un-served and underserved
areas. A detailed analysis of health conditions in Viet Nam during this period is beyond the scope of this essay.
Viet Nam’s health policies up until the mid 1980s were ‘‘state-socialist’’ and universalist. Health policies were
state-socialist in that they were designed to achieve a state-ﬁnanced health system based on the collectivist, centrally
planned economic institutions of state socialism. At all levels, health services were to be ﬁnanced through a
combination of transfers from the central budget and local resources. In rural areas, agricultural collectives would be
responsible for ﬁnancing the activities of commune-level health workers, while medicine, materials, and labour were
allocated through the planned economy. Viet Nam’s health policies were universalist in that they promised preventive
and curative health services free of charge as a right of citizenship.
The social and health outcomes of socialist universalism were mixed. On the one hand, the institutionalization of
state-funded health services in Viet Nam contributed to declines in child mortality and morbidity, and gradually
improved access to all types of medical care. On the other hand, the prevailing scarcity of resources severely limited
the quality, scale, and scope of public health services across northern Viet Nam and across the entire country after
1975. As in other state socialist societies, the health system in Viet Nam both reﬂected and reproduced state-socialist
inequalities. Access to comprehensive care was a formal right of citizenship, but the actual availability and quality of
services was limited: state elites and urban populations enjoyed greater access and better quality services than did rural
and politically marginal masses.
Four successive decades of war (with France, the U.S., Cambodia, and China) placed enormous strains on the
economy and the health system in particular. Large areas of the country remain un-served or underserved by the
national health network. But by the mid-1980s, the CPV has overseen the development of a sprawling state-ﬁnanced
health system. Viewed historically, the universalist health policies that the CPV pursued in northern Viet Nam since the
1950s and on a national basis after 1975 were truly revolutionary, as they promised universal access to preventive and
curative health services as a right of citizenship. However, the consequences of Viet Nam’s poor economic
performance and wars severely diminished the amount of public resources available for investment in health. Indeed,
the ﬁscal foundations of Vietnamese state socialism were on the verge of collapse.
1.2. Heath care and state-socialist involution
The erosion of state-socialist economic institutions in Viet Nam during the 1980s emasculated budgetary resources
for health and hobbled the functioning of the state in virtually all its aspects. Declining state revenues and the
dissolution of state-socialist economic institutions eviscerated the ﬁscal foundations of universalist health provision.
Budgetary transfers to hospitals at the provincial and district levels shrank. As agricultural cooperatives failed or
dissolved, so too did the ﬁnancial bases of the CHS. Clinics and hospitals struggled to function while health workers’
morale plummeted. In many areas, hospital workers went months without wages and had to resort to various
improvisational strategies to make ends meet.
In 1987, to alleviate ﬁnancial strains on the health system, the CPV sanctioned the private provision of health
services as well as the limited private sale of pharmaceutical drugs.
In 1989, the CPV (acting through the rubber
stamp National Assembly) granted the government formal constitutional authority to introduce user fees. This resulted
in the Prime Minister’s Decision No. 45, which formally permitted the ‘collection of partial expenses’ (thu mo
´) in public (i.e., state-run) clinics and hospitals.
However, the continuation of the dire ﬁscal situation meant
J.D. London / Policy and Society 27 (2008) 115–128 117
As stipulated in the constitution of 1980.
This was permitted by the Ministerial Circular No. 30.
Decision 45 was issued by the Council of Ministers (1989).
that conditions in the health sector deteriorated, further limiting the quality, scale, and scope of state-ﬁnanced health
services and gradually affecting their utilization as seen in Fig. 1 (below).
Whether and to what extent declines in utilization are due to the poor quality of services or the introduction of user
fees remains the subject of debate. What was clear that the health sector faced a catastrophic failure of public ﬁnancing
and that the collapse of state-socialism would require new institutional arrangements for health ﬁnance.
1.3. Health policies after 1989 and their outcomes
What emerged after 1989 was a largely ad hoc and at times incoherent patchwork of policies whose principal
thrust have been to reduce the state’s ﬁnancial responsibility for heath care while at the same time seeking to
maintain the state’s leading role in its provision. More speciﬁcally, the most salient features of Viet Nam’s health
policies since 1989 have been low public expenditure, the consequent shifting of ﬁnancial responsibilities for
health payment from the state onto households, and sustained efforts to frame this shifting of ﬁnancial
responsibilities in a rhetoric of state-led social mobilization. Combined with weak heath sector regulation and
spatially uneven economic growth, these policies contributed to the increasing subordination of heath care and
health to the logic of markets.
J.D. London / Policy and Society 27 (2008) 115–128118
Fig. 1. Adapted from MOH, World Bank (1993, 2001).
Fig. 2. State Education and Health spending as a percentage of GDP.
1.3.1. Low public expenditure
The most signiﬁcant attribute of health policies in Viet Nam since 1989 has undoubtedly been the state’s low public
spending on health. This was unavoidable, as the ﬁscal crisis that Viet Nam encountered in the late 1980s drained the
state of ﬁnancial resources. However, through nearly two decades of rapid economic growth and continuous increases
in revenue, public health spending in Viet Nam has not increased markedly as a proportion of GDP, as state
expenditures on other social policy ﬁelds such as education have (Fig. 2).
The ﬁscal weakness and incapacities of the Vietnamese state in the early 1990s certainly prevented the possibility of
a swift return to a state-ﬁnanced system. And economic growth and increases in the scale of the state budget meant that
there have been signiﬁcant absolute increases in public health expenditure. However, public health expenditure has
remained low as a proportion of GDP relative to other sectors and has not been sufﬁcient to address the country’s
Internationally, Viet Nam’s public spending on health remains quite low in per capita terms. As of 2007, this
accounted for roughly six percent of the central budget, whereas they represent 18.8 percent in Cambodia, 17.1 percent
in Thailand, and 10 percent in China.
As of 2006, public health spending on health in Viet Nam (from the state budget)
accounted for roughly 18 percent of total health expenditure, while total public expenditure (comprising budget,
insurance, and foreign aid) accounted for 31 percent of total health expenditure. By the mid-1990s, Vietnamese
households were shouldering an estimated 80 percent of the total costs of health services through out-of-pocket
payments. Today, by all estimates, over 60 percent of total health expenditure is out of pocket. Total per-capita heath
spending was US$46 by 2006. As recently as 2006, government health expenditure declined, with 2006 outlays only
amounting to 86 percent of 2005 ﬁgure, in real terms.
The signiﬁcance of future increases in public health expenditure
will need to be assessed against increases in the costs of care, particularly as Viet Nam in 2007–2008 experienced an
inﬂation of over 30 percent (London, 2008).
1.3.2. Some implications of low public spending
The main implication of this shift was that access to health services beyond a basic level would become – in
principle and in practice – increasingly contingent on households’ ability to mount out-of-pocket payments. The
dependence of health treatment on cash payments tends to contribute to inequity in the accessibility of health services.
The health system favors wealthier, urban-based population segments that have better access to better facilities. The
poorest population segments (poor and ‘‘near-poor’’) remain vulnerable in the face of high, privately borne costs of
Heath care in Viet Nam is proportionately more expensive for the poor. Tipping (2000, cited in Segall and
Associates, 2002) has used 5 percent of income as a benchmark for ‘affordable heath care.’ Research published in 2000
found that among households who reported illness, spending on heath care amounted to 22 percent of poor
households’ income, compared to only 8 percent for the non-poor (Segall and Associates, 2002). More recent data
suggest such conditions persist, as is suggested in Table 1, below.
As Tab l e 1 shows, although the poorest quintile of households’ expenditure on health amounted to only 30
percentofthatoftherichestquintile,healthexpenditure for poor households consumed over 40 percent of
household income (MOH, 2005: p. 23). The high costs of treating illness frequently forces poor households to
borrow money from neighbors, sell assets, or seek loans from moneylenders, with the result that many households
2006 Viet Nam Households Living Standards survey suggest these trends have persisted,butcouldnotbequoted
for this publication.
It is also important to recognize that low public spending on health also means low wages in the health sector.
Indeed, until recently, health sector workers were among the worst paid of all state workers in Viet Nam. With respect
to recurrent versus capital expenditures, recurrent expenditures account for roughly 75 percent of the annual health
budget. Data indicate that the period from 1991 to 1993 salaries and wages in the health sector increased from 16 to 28
percent of state budget health expenditure and from 36 to 47 percent during the period 1998–2000 (Seachange, 2006).
(This reﬂects salary increases for state workers.) Low wages, in turn, has contributed to low morale, and has also
contributed to the proliferation of informal ‘‘gift’’ payments to doctors, a further source of inequity.
J.D. London / Policy and Society 27 (2008) 115–128 119
MOH-HPG (2007). Joint Annual Health Review 2007.
Weak health sector governance has compounded Viet Nam’s problems in the health sector. Viet Nam’s health sector
has always functioned in a more decentralized manner than its formal organization would suggest. But in the transition
to a market economy, the MOH was also slow to adopt appropriate governance functions and remains particularly
weak with respect to information, planning, monitoring, and strategy (Fritzen, 2007). The government’s overall move
towards decentralization continues to shift the locus of ﬁnancial discretion away from the center. The share of total
public expenditure from the budget spent by local governments has increased over the years to an estimated 48 percent
in 2005, while the ﬁgure for the health sector hovers around 80 percent (SRV and World Bank, 2005). The MOH’s
ability to regulate a highly decentralized health system is among the most important question marks in the evolution of
Viet Nam’s health policies.
1.3.3. Ideological adjustments
The increasing contingence of heath care on cash payments poses special problems for a communist party. In the
early 1990s, CPV ideologues justiﬁed departures from socialist principles by emphasizing the limited ﬁnancial powers
of the state. Since the early 1990s, Party ideologues have developed a rhetoric of state-led social mobilization, under
the heading of ‘socialization’ (xa
´a). As a long-time health ofﬁcial and one of the coiners of the concept
‘‘socialization’’ expressed a manual for commune level ofﬁcials:
The concept of socialization should be understood as an effective and planned cooperation of activities of all
social forces following a national direction and a strategy aiming to resolve a social problem...For each
community, family, citizen, socialization is understood as a process of response to and participation in the
leaders’ mobilization movement, then becoming a process of active and conscious activities for the sake of
improving their own quality of life...Socialization is understood as a ‘‘social solution’’ of highly inter-sectoral
characteristics, with the participation of many social forces (Ðam, 1997).
With some emblematic ﬂourishes, the CPV has promoted ‘‘socialization’’ as a collective mass-mobilization
response to ‘‘the new situation’’. Indeed, the rhetoric of socialization is evocative of that from mass mobilizations of
Viet Nam’s wartime and immediate post-war years. The party line on ‘‘socialization’’ has become an entrenched
feature of health policy in Viet Nam. It is lauded as the ‘‘correct policy’’ and is invoked to justify many things, from the
need for people to ‘‘contribute’’ fees, to exhorting state-owned enterprises to contribute charitable donations, to the
need to promote the privatization of certain aspects of the public health system.
While the CPV has not accorded health budgetary priority, it would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the
CPV is not concerned with development of the health sector. A recent example is the party’s Resolution 46 of 2005,
which criticized ‘‘poor management’’ in the health sector and expressed concern about the political consequences of a
health system that is widely perceived to be inequitable. There are also indications that the Party has come to
appreciate the merits of more public spending: in 2008, the National Assembly stated its intent to devote at least 10
percent of the national budget for health (Kinh te
ˆn, 2006). As it stands, however, Viet Nam’s health system
exhibits many of the attributes of health systems in poorly regulated market economies.
2. Redistributive reassertions of the state
From the time the CPV began to liberalize Viet Nam’s health sector, it has also taken steps to protect various
segments of the population through a variety of redistributive means. It has done so in three principal ways: through
J.D. London / Policy and Society 27 (2008) 115–128120
Average annual per-capita expenditure/inpatient care by income expenditure quintile (2004).
Average annual per capita expenditure
on inpatient care (‘000s of VND)
Percentage of those who
must pay over 1 million VND
per capita income
Inpatient costs as a
proportion of income (%)
Poorest 511.1 12.1 1262 40.5
Near poor 744.8 16.8 1922 38.8
Average 794.0 18.7 2459 32.3
Better off 1152.9 23.1 3336 34.6
Richest 1865.3 37.9 7359 25.3
Source:MOH (2005: p. 23).
‘‘safety-net’’ programs designed to ensure access to health services for certain segments of the population; through
efforts to salvage and gradual expand the national network of state-run and state subsidized health providers, including
commune health stations and state hospitals; and, through the gradual development of a national health insurance
system. As I will show, these redistributive reassertions of the state in the health sector have addressed different and at
times even contradictory state imperatives and their impacts on the health of Vietnamese people have been mixed.
2.1. Safety nets: protecting the poor and vulnerable while protecting legitimacy
Since 1989, Viet Nam has developed a system of safety-nets designed to protect certain segments of the population
from the vagaries of a marketized health system. Initially, these safety nets appeared mainly to be legitimacy seeking,
as they offered protection for the CPV’s most valued political constituencies and only a limited array of disadvantaged
groups. Only several years later, in 1993 and 1994, did the state initiate measures speciﬁcally targeting the poor, and
these measures did not take effect until the late 1990s. With expanding state revenues, the CPV has called for the
gradual expansion of these safety-nets programs. In 2005, the state began a program offering health services to all
children under the age of ﬁve. Current plans are to eventually merge these safety nets into the national health insurance
system, which is addressed later in this section.
When the CPV decided to permit the collection of user fees in 1989, it had major concerns about fees’ potentially
adverse impacts. Fees contradicted Article 61 of the 1980 Constitution not to mention a tenet of state-socialism. Some
localities even refused to consider collecting fees, at least at the beginning. There were reasons for concern. Fees-for-
services threatened not only to undermine the health and wellbeing of the population, but also to alienate several of the
party’s key political constituencies. Hence, the Prime Minister’s Decision No. 45 not only permitted the collection of
fees, but dictated that fees exemptions or reductions be extended to 10 different qualifying groups, which included
members of certain political ‘‘priority groups’’ (such as certain veterans and mothers of certain fallen soldiers, as well
as children and orphans).
The fee exemptions and reductions listed in Decision 45 had their limits. First, the granting of exemptions remained
dependent on the discretion of local Party cells and hospital administrators. Second, the list of those eligible was quite
limited and conspicuously made no mention of ‘‘the poor.’’ Perhaps most fundamentally, even at this early stage, the
exemptions and reductions granted covered only a portion of the actual expenses incurred by those seeking treatment.
Given the list of beneﬁciaries eligible for fee reductions and exemptions, it is hard not to conclude that the ﬁrst round of
fee exemptions and reductions were largely or at least signiﬁcantly legitimacy-seeking measures.
But in 1993 and 1994, the scale and scope of the state’s health sector safety-nets increased, as the state took
measures to extend fees exemptions and reductions to the poor. In 1993, the government introduced its Hunger
Eradication and Poverty Reduction program (HEPR). The HEPR was actually a set of programs designed to
ameliorate the widening gap between high- and low-growth regions and between richer and poorer segments of the
population by extending exemptions for health, education, and other services to government-designated poor
communes and individuals falling below the state set poverty line. In 1994, the government introduced Decree 95 (of
1994), which those certiﬁed by local authorities as ofﬁcially poor would be exempted from fees, with charges to be
covered by the regular budget of the local public health provider. Administering the HEPR program was a massive
undertaking. It was not until 1998 that the government even speciﬁed the institutional arrangements for the
implementation of these programs.
By the end of 1998, the state had established HEPR boards in 6958 communes (out of 7515 at the time), and local
authorities commenced their poverty-accounting efforts – using government criteria to identify ‘‘poor’’ households in
each commune. The government issued a number of additional policies intended to identify and assist especially needy
(usually ‘‘remote’’ and ‘‘especially difﬁcult’’) areas and ethnic minority groups. This included Decision 135, which
stipulated medical fees exemptions for entire ‘‘poor’’ villages. However, the total value of fee exemptions granted by
hospitals during the period 1998–2000 amounted to less than four percent of hospital expenditures during the same
period. Decisions to grant exemptions again remained subject to the discretion of individual hospitals contingent on the
availability of funds, and criteria determining who was ‘‘ofﬁcially’’ poor were not consistently applied (MOH, 2005).
Viet Nam’s continuous economic growth and increasing government revenues permitted gradual expansions of the
fee exemptions schemes. The ﬁrst of these occurred in 1999, when the Council of Ministers issued Circular 5, which
stipulated health insurance for all households certiﬁed as ‘‘hungry’’ as well as those households in the 30-poorest
percentile of the poor in any given locality (not including those localities under Program 135). Funding for this
J.D. London / Policy and Society 27 (2008) 115–128 121
program was, in principle, to be met by a combination of national and local budget sources, as well as ‘‘contributions’’
from ‘‘social and economic organizations.’’ While local funding arrangements were mandatory – their actual scale and
impacts depended heavily on the ﬁnances of localities (MOH, 2005).
In 2002, the government expanded this same model in the form of Decision 139 and Circular 14 which, in addition
to setting a new criterion of eligibility for fee exemptions and reductions (in part, in accordance with a new poverty
line), also stipulated that all provinces must establish ‘‘heath care funds for the poor (Prime Minister, 2002).’’ Decision
139 also clariﬁed the government’s intent to phase out fee exemptions and reductions by drawing the poor into the
national health insurance program, analyzed further below. By 2002, all provinces had established a Heath care for the
Poor Fund and Management Board, and by 2004, there were some 13.1 million beneﬁciaries, accounting for 16 percent
of the entire population. By one estimate, in 2004, the total funds committed for Decision 139 was 717.7 billion Dong,
or roughly $43 million USD (Tra
Perhaps the most ambitious fees exemptions scheme of all was announced in March of 2005, when the government
issued Decree 36, granting all children less than 6 years of age free medical treatment.
Some foreign observers
regarded this exemption scheme as an example of a ‘‘delusional’’ state policy, in that it is one the state could not
possibly afford (Harvard, 2008). Nonetheless, the policy has been carried out. In 2005, household surveys in three
provinces showed over 80 percent of children had been issued such cards. People surveyed in the research reported
their appreciation of the policy in principle, but complained that without referrals they could only get treatment at the
CHS, where equipment and doctors were regarded as inferior, that the paperwork required was excessive, and that
when using the cards at hospitals they were subject to long waits (Phan, 2006).
When asked in an interview in 2008
whether this policy was indeed delusional, a senior member of the National Assembly Committee on Budgetary
Affairs acknowledged the difﬁculties, but said the policy would remain as a ‘‘goal.’’
Overall, fee exemptions and reductions, though they have grown in scope, still only reach a limited proportion of
the population. Across provinces, districts, and communes, there remains wide variation reported in the accuracy and
efﬁcacy of poverty accounting, with numerous reports of patronage involving the arbitrary designation of certain
communes and certain households. Existing safety-net programs also generally fail to capture economic migrants.
Perhaps most fundamentally, fee exemptions cover only one component of the costs of health services, and poor
persons have a hard time making up the large gap between formal fees and other costs, such as transport, medicines,
food, lodging fees for relatives, and informal payments. Despite these limitations, the scale and impacts of fee
exemptions has grown over time and represent a signiﬁcant reassertion of the state’s role in the health sector.
2.2. Salvaging and strengthening the state-run health network
The collapse of state socialist institutions in the late 1980s placed the ﬁnancial viability of the state-run health
sector into question. Since the late 1980s, public health expenditure has remained low as a proportion of GDP and low
in comparison with other countries. However, Viet Nam – ﬁrst with foreign donor support and later on its own – has
effectively preserved and strengthened the state-run health network, and state health providers remain the most
important providers of health services. Many of the improvements in the country’s health status since 1989 may be
linked to the state’s maintenance of a basic ﬂoor of health services – primarily through the continued public ﬁnance of
commune health stations and public hospitals.
The commune health stations (CHSs) were always a core element in Viet Nam’s national health system. In the early
1990s, however, the CHS were facing acute shortages owing principally to an absence of local sources of ﬁnancial
support. In 1994, Viet Nam’s Prime Minister issued Decision 58, which permitted use of the central budget (through
province budgets) to pay and or supplement salaries for three to ﬁve CHS staff per commune. Though most of this
supplemental funding came into the budget from foreign donors, decision 58 is credited with improving the income
and morale of CHS workers and perhaps even rescuing the primary health system of the country. Notably, so such
policy support was given to primary care providers in China (Ðang et al., 2006).
J.D. London / Policy and Society 27 (2008) 115–128122
Decree 36 NÐ-CP, 17/3/2005.
The same research suggested the proportion of children that had been issued the health cards was overstated. In one province in the south, for
example, local authorities reported 96 percent of children had been issued cards, whereas independent research found only 84 percent had.
Interview with the National Assembly’s Committee on Finance and Budget, May 2008.
Formerly, localities were responsible for paying local health workers’ wages at the commune level.
In addition to stabilizing salaries, the state moved to increase the numbers and coverage of the CHS, with some
success. In 1993, 800 communes in Viet Nam still lacked a CHS and 88 communes lacked both a CHS and a health
worker. By 2004, 98 percent (or all but 149) of communes had a CHS and at least one health worker, while 67.8
percent of communes had a doctor. By 2002, 93 percent of communes had a trained midwife, and 90 percent of
hamlets (below the commune level) had at least one active health worker, who were paid as low as VNÐ100,000
(USD$5.50) per month (MOH, 2005). The central government also reasserted its role by specifying funding norms.
In 2002, Circular 2002 required all CHS to maintain a basic operational budget of no less than 10 million VND per
year, not including wages or funds for health for the poor. It also established a range of compulsory funding norms
for the CHS, with the local People’s Committee to be held accountable in the case of any shortfalls (Ðang et al.,
2006). By 2006, Viet Nam’s counted some 10,672 state-run clinics at the commune and precinct level (GSO, 2007:
Beyond primary heath care, Viet Nam’s state has continued to expand and upgrade its network of public hospitals,
which now exceeds 1000 in number. The scale and functions of Viet Nam’s hospitals fall into three main groups,
corresponding to secondary, tertiary, and quaternary levels of medical care.
Viet Nam’s 597 district-level hospitals
provide the most basic level of hospital care and constitute the secondary level of services provision in the country’s
health system. On average, district level hospitals have fewer than 80 beds (MOH, 2000). Viet Nam’s 324 province-
level hospitals constitute the tertiary level of health. Province-level hospitals and large urban hospitals are
administered by Provincial and City Health Departments, respectively. They range from 300 to 500 beds in size.
Providing services at the quaternary level of care along with standard outpatient services are Viet Nam’s 31 centrally
managed hospitals. These are the largest and most technically sophisticated hospitals and average over 500 beds.
Almost all are located in Viet Nam’s largest cities.
In terms of utilization, district hospitals are the most common site of treatment for Viet Nam’s large rural population
and for the rural poor. District hospitals, however, vary widely in their sophistication and in the quality of services
provided. Unevenness in the quality of district hospitals tends to be reinforced by continued uneven development
across localities, combined with a ﬁscal system which, though redistributive in important respects, fails to compensate
for the greater need of poor localities and their populations. Provincial hospitals serve the curative and outpatient needs
of both local and regional populations. In comparison to district hospitals, province-level hospitals have seen faster
growth in services utilization and many show serious signs of congestion. Hospitals at the central level are the most
congested in part because they offer (or are perceived to offer) the highest quality and most sophisticated services. In
addition to handling the most complex medical procedures, Viet Nam’s centrally managed hospitals are the preferred
location for treatment by Viet Nam’s increasingly wealthy urban populations.
Although Viet Nam’s public spending on health has remained low, the state has evidenced a commitment to
gradually expanding the number and upgrading the quality of its public hospitals. In 1989, Viet Nam had 774 hospitals
(MOH, 1991). By 2006 there were 1040 (Nghie
:m, 2006). In 1994, the MOH initiated a program to upgrade medical
equipment in the country’s hospitals and by 2000, most central and province-level hospitals were – according to state
standards – ‘‘adequately equipped,’’ while roughly 60 percent of district hospitals had X-ray machines and 92 percent
had ambulances (Ðang et al., 2006). Viet Nam’s public hospitals are easily the most important site for medical
treatment. While the number of private doctors in Viet Nam is increasing, the number of private hospitals remains
small. As of December 2007, Viet Nam had 66 private hospitals, with some 3500 beds, accounting for roughly three
percent of the national total (MOH-HPG, 2007).
2.3. Health insurance
Evidence of the CPV’s early concern with the impacts of commoditizing health was also visible in the Party’s early
expressed intent to develop a national health insurance system. Indeed, the same government decision that permitted
the collection of fees for services in 1989 and the listing of those who were to receive exemptions and reductions also
made deliberate mention of the need for the development of a health insurance system. Initially, the Party viewed
health insurance principally as a mechanism for mobilizing resources for the health sector in a climate of acute scarcity
(Axelson, 2007). Only later did health insurance policies indicate the ambition of building a stable mechanism of
health ﬁnance for the entire country.
J.D. London / Policy and Society 27 (2008) 115–128 123
Preventive health services, such as commune health stations, represent the primary level of care.
Since the early 1990s, the state has made concerted efforts to make the health insurance system more coherent and
unitary, though with limited results. In September 1994, voluntary health insurance for school children (6 years old
until university) was introduced through Circular 14 (Ministry of Education and Training [MOET] and Ministry of
Health [MOH], 1994), and by the 1995/1996 school year, about half of provincial health insurance ofﬁces had
established school health insurance.
Two features of health insurance in Viet Nam during the 1990s were particularly noteworthy: ﬁrst, membership was
on an individual basis: dependents were not covered and are not covered up until the present. This runs contrary to
international best practices in health insurance and has probably contributed to the low uptake of health insurance by
several population groups. Until recently, the national health insurance program left large segments of the population
unprotected; the introduction of a new poverty line in 2005 will expand the numbers eligible for the national targeted
program (Heath care Fund for the Poor), while proposed revisions to that program will make qualifying ‘‘near-poor’’
persons eligible for subsidized health insurance. Still, health insurance covers individuals, not households. The actual
administration of health insurance poses practical problems for poor beneﬁciaries and Viet Nam’s growing population
of economic migrants are left uninsured.
Second, until the late 1990s, the poor were not covered by health insurance and tens of millions of rural people were
largely left out of the scheme. Notably, Decree 299 did not include provisions for covering the poor and vulnerable.
Provinces were instead encouraged to set up their own support systems for these groups (MOH, 1994). Like fee
exemptions, Viet Nam’s health insurance policies have had a signiﬁcance corporatist element: A government
ordinance issues in 1995 stipulated health insurance would be granted to certain veterans and mothers of certain fallen
soldiers through the compulsory insurance scheme. As Axelson notes, the poor would eventually become covered by
health insurance through polices introduced in 1999 and 2002, as would dependents of three groups: dependents of
military ofﬁcers in active service (Decree 63 in 2002), beneﬁciaries of the Heath care Fund for the Poor (Decision 139
in 2002), and dependents of policy ofﬁcers in active service (Decree 63 in 2005). But these later developments came
only after 2002, the period in which the state began to be more assertive in the pursuit of health insurance.
Since 2002, the government of Viet Nam has been more assertive in its approach to health insurance. Health
insurance is compulsory for workers in the formal sector and represents an increasingly important mechanism for
health payment, even as the budget remains, by far, the largest source of funding for hospitals and other public
providers of health services in Viet Nam. By 2006, roughly 40 percent of Viet Nam’s population was covered by health
insurance (MOH-HPG, 2007;Fig. 3). Yet 50 percent of Viet Nam’s population may be qualiﬁed as ‘‘near poor’’: poor
enough to be severely impacted by catastrophic health costs but not ‘‘poor enough’’ to qualify for free health insurance.
Viet Nam repeatedly states its aim of achieving universal coverage of the population by 2010, though in recent
months it has hardly mentioned this target, and has instituted policies that seem to take a step back. Recent
developments in the health insurance scheme evidence confused priorities and unresolved issues. A health insurance
ordinance rolled out in 2004, promised beneﬁts that were later deemed ﬁnancially unsustainable, while a subsequent
J.D. London / Policy and Society 27 (2008) 115–128124
Fig. 3. Health Insurance Enrolment, 1998–2006. Source:Nghie
decision rolled back beneﬁts but also increased the price of subscription, pricing out rural households. A more recent
government decision raised the cost of voluntary health insurance while reducing coverage. These more recent
decisions appeared to lead to a decline in voluntary enrollment, particularly among the poor. The debate about whether
to make the health insurance scheme compulsory remains unresolved as of mid-2008.
3. Accumulative reassertions of the state
In the wake of state socialism, Vietnamese health policymakers had to ﬁnd new institutional arrangements to
govern the ﬁnancing of health services. On the one hand the state’s low public expenditure on health has shifted many
of the burdens of health ﬁnance onto households. On the other hand, it has created powerful incentives within the
health sector to maximize budgetary and non-budgetary sources of revenue through both licit and illicit means. While
the government has taken a number of signiﬁcant steps to protect the population from the pernicious effects of fees-
based public services, it has simultaneously taken steps to promote economic accumulation within the public sector, so
as to reduce public service delivery units’ reliance on public ﬁnance. This ‘‘reassertion’’ of the state amounts to an
effort by the state to improve the ﬁnancial performance of public-service delivery units by promoting the
commercialization of those units’ operations.
3.1. Accumulation in the health sector: from cost recovery to commercialization
In their pursuit of state goals, states need resources and revenue in particular. Viet Nam’s efforts to bolster its
‘‘extractive’’ capacity has taken many forms, though doing so at local levels of governance (versus at ports and in
industrial parks) has proven difﬁcult. These reassertions of the state include the expansion of ‘‘cost-recovery’’
mechanisms, the legalization of private provision of health services within or loosely connected to nominally public
health facilities, and the autonomization of public hospitals aimed at the expansion of revenues. These formally
sanctioned accumulative reassertions of the state exist alongside and in combination with other forms of accumulation
within the health system, including unsanctioned but institutionalized forms, such as ‘‘gift payments’’ to medical staff
and informal arrangements whereby hospitals lease equipment from their own staff. These payments have been
tolerated by the state, largely because most doctors relied on such payments for the lion’s share of their incomes. In
Viet Nam, privatization of health service delivery has occurred largely (though not exclusively) within the formal shell
of nominally public service providers.
Another illustrative example of autonomous accumulation in the health sector occurred in response to the 2005
policy on heath care for children under the age of six. Although some provinces already had similar policies in place on
a small scale, the introduction of this national decree led to an explosion in the number of patients in the public health
system, particularly in hospitals (Ta
´ng May 2005). At the Central Pediatrics Hospital, for example, average
outpatient numbers soared from 600 to 700 per day to some 1000–1200 per day after the Decree’s introduction. The
hospitals 530 beds, already overloaded before the decree, were after the decree facing some 900 patients. For hospital
staff, the volume of work doubled while salaries remained constant. Nurses responsible for administering injections of
various kinds saw an increase from 15 to 20 patients per day to roughly 50 per day. Pediatrics hospitals in Ha Noi and
Ho Chi Minh City quickly devised strategies to recover costs by offering ‘‘policy’’ and ‘‘non-policy’’ steams for
patients, whereby the later received preferential treatment in special rooms and even new wards under the rubric
‘‘Services on Demand,’’ in exchange for fees. This tiered arrangement for higher and low or no-fees paying users is
quickly developing into an institutionalized feature of heath care provision, and is in some respects actually being
promoted by the state, as I will argue below (Ta
I believe the state’s reassertions in the sphere of accumulation have emerged in response to the state’s weak
extractive and allocative capacities and functions to achieve and maintain the subjective legitimacy of key political
constituencies within the state and among important international constituencies, including international ﬁnancial
institutions, supranational trade organizations, and foreign investors.
3.2. The ﬁnancial autonomization of hospitals
Since 1989, the state has gradually but unmistakably promoted ‘‘cost-recovery’’ and other methods to ﬁnance
services. But the most decisive movement toward an accumulative reassertion has come more recently, in a decision by
J.D. London / Policy and Society 27 (2008) 115–128 125
the CPV (and its state) to embrace autonomization of public services, including health services. As is often the case
with decentralization and autonomization schemes, this one was conceived largely without consideration of its health
At the center of the discussion are two government decrees – Decree 10 (effective in 2004) and its replacement,
Decree 43 (effective in 2006). The stated aims of these decrees are to improve the quality of public services by
conferring greater ﬁnancial and managerial autonomy to pubic service delivery units. Speciﬁcally, the decrees grant
service delivery units greater discretion over service organization, the allocation of ﬁnancial resources, and the
management of personnel. The decrees encourage public service delivery units to ﬁnance service upgrades and
‘‘resolve’’ staff wage costs through the development of alternative non-budgetary sources of revenue. To this end, the
decrees also encourage service delivery units to adopt a ‘‘business model of management’’ so as to more energetically
‘‘mobilize ﬁnancial resources from society.’’ Decrees 10 and 43 represent an historic shift in the formal principles and
institutions governing the provision and payment for public services in Viet Nam’s hospitals.
Decrees 10 and 43 are likely to affect all aspects of health services delivery and all segments of Viet Nam’s
population. That said, a major focus of this section is whether and how Decrees 10 and 43 will affect the quality and
accessibility of hospital services in Viet Nam, particularly for poor and near poor segments of the country’s population.
Skeptics of decentralization fear that Decrees 10 and 43 will promote the commercialization and commodiﬁcation of
health services, resulting in the worsening of health sector inequalities – a development that would be at odds with the
stated principles of the Communist Party of Viet Nam. By contrast, defenders of Decrees 10 and 43 suggest that by
reducing hospitals’ overall reliance on the central budget, the decrees will free up scarce budgetary resources, which
can then be channeled to those in greatest need.
It bears emphasis that Decrees 10 and 43 do not merely amount to the ‘‘legalization of existing practices,’’ even
if their implementation does formally accommodate certain forms of institutionalized de facto decentralization and
autonomization. Instead, Decrees 10 and 43 actively promote autonomization as a reform strategy. The decrees
represent an attempt at reform through autonomization and commercialization and the implementation of the
decrees will give local health service delivery units a direct role in deciding the direction and substance of heath
While Decrees 10 and 43 do not amount to the outright privatization of services, the thrust of Decree 43 is
unmistakable: to reduce the burden on the central budget and encourage units to develop new forms of income, in the
interest of upgrading the quality and range of services as well as covering staff pay. The emphasis on transitioning to a
commercial model of governance is a striking reminder of how far Viet Nam has come from central planning. On the
other hand, formally stated aims do not ensure positive outcomes and formally stated principles do not guarantee
adherence to principles. Indeed, if there is a ‘‘dark cloud’’ hovering over the implementation of Decrees 10 and 43 in
Viet Nam’s health sector, it is international experience with similar measures, in which principles such as
accountability, transparency, and responsiveness were cast aside.
Without effective systems of monitoring, regulation, and information sharing, decentralization by decree can
ironically eventuate in a situation of ‘‘bottom up’’ decentralization, to the extent that lower levels of government
become mainly concerned with ‘‘beating’’ the system (Painter, 2006). Studying responses to decentralizing decrees
therefore requires cognizance of both formal and informal dimensions of decentralization. It may also result in the
further and formalized development of a tiered system in which health services for the rich and poor become split
(IHSP, 2008). The autonomization of health service delivery currently underway in Viet Nam may well counteract
some of the redistributive reassertions described above.
The autonomization of public services and health services in particular is a central-state initiative that responds
to the weak extractive capacities of the Vietnamese state and the (misguided) faith in decentralization. The
redistributive impulse in Vietnamese health policy could not address a more fundamental issue facing the health
sector and all other social sectors: the need for additional economic resources. Given the political and budgetary
priorities of the Vietnamese state and its limited extractive and allocative capacities, the answer would not be the
budget. Instead, the ‘‘solution’’ would be autonomization: allow public service providers to generate their own
resources. So does ﬁnancial autonomization represent a reassertion of the private in the public’s clothing?
Certainly, it is an odd type of privatization, whereby the state (and Party and individuals associated with both)
seek to generate and exploit the beneﬁts of commoditized health services and mitigate the political risks, with
mixed success both with respect to improving the quality and equity of services and protecting the party’s
J.D. London / Policy and Society 27 (2008) 115–128126
In the wake of state socialism, the CPV adopted policies designed to shift institutional responsibilities for health
ﬁnance onto the population. Public health spending has been low. But rapid economic growth during this period
permitted sustained increases in total health spending and improvements in health status. Still, the cost-shifting
policies that the CPV maintained after 1989 have helped commodify health in Viet Nam and make access to health
services beyond a basic level contingent on out-of-pocket payments.
In addition to cost-shifting, Viet Nam’s health system since 1989 has experienced two reassertions of the state.
‘‘Redistributive reassertions’’ included fee exemptions programs, as sustained commitment to providing a ﬂoor of
basic health services through the ﬁnance of commune health centres, district hospitals, and the development of a
national health insurance system. Being small in scale during the 1990s, in recent years these redistributive aspects
of health policy have grown and are now important institutionalized features of Viet Nam’s health system. The
gradual expansion of targeted ‘‘safety nets’’ programs and the national insurance scheme represent a welfare and
external legitimacy-enhancing redistributive reassertion of the state. While this redistribution has its limits, it is
non-trivial. Unlike in many countries, Viet Nam today possesses a preventive health outlet in literally every local
jurisdiction of the country. And, in the last 5 years, targeted programs have expanded in scale and scope and the
insurance scheme designed to protect Vietnamese from the harshness of the ‘new situation’ has gradually been
Another response to catastrophic retrenchment has been an accumulative reassertion of the state. Viet Nam’s
adoption of fees for service principles in the early 1990s formally sanctioned cost-recovery in the health sector.
Various informal and illicit forms of accumulation also exist. But recent years have seen efforts by the central state to
promote greater accumulation with the state health sector. The autonomization of public hospitals is a strategy by the
state to address its own weak extractive capacities and reduce hospitals overall reliance on scarce public sector
resources. Alternatively,the incentives that autonomization introduces into hospitals threatens to undermine principles
of equity and transform ‘‘public’’ health services into private proﬁt centers.
In any context, the reassertion of the state in the delivery of public services is likely to respond to quite diverse and
sometimes contradictory state imperatives. Viet Nam’s health sector is a case in point. A discussion of ‘‘reasserting
the state’’ in Viet Nam’s health sector leads us to the conclusion that the state’s reassertions embodied contradictory
responses to the realities of a commodiﬁed health system in a decentralized society with limited state capacities. Viet
Nam’s health sector is very much in the process of becoming. Just what it is becoming remains unclear. Whether and
to what extent a combination of modest redistribution, health insurance, and state-sponsored market based
accumulation strategies within the ‘public’ health sector actually promote social equity and public health remains to
Karl Polanyi’s famous concept of ‘‘double movement’’ referred to the subjugation of social life to markets and the
subsequent need for state intervention to protect human life from being destroyed (Polanyi, 1944). Reassertions of the
state in contemporary Viet Nam’s health sector represent a contemporary instance of a Polanyian ‘‘double movement,’’
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