In the shadow of one of China’s top cancer hospitals in Beijing, a catacomb-like network of ramshackle brick buildings has become a home-from-home for hundreds of cancer patients and their families waiting for treatment.

Wang uses a mobile phone as she take a rest in her room at the accommodation where patients and their family members stay while seeking medical treatments in Beijing, China, June 23, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon.

The cluster of nine buildings, connected by dark, narrow passageways, offers cheap accommodation for patients unable to afford a coveted hospital room, a reflection of the vast inequalities in China’s overburdened healthcare system.

A man walks past the accommodation where some patients and their family members stay while seeking medical treatment in Beijing, China, April 21, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon.

These “cancer hotels” have sprung up near hospitals around the country to house some of the more than three million people diagnosed with cancer in China every year.

A rose plant is seen in a room at the accommodation where some patients and their family members stay while seeking medical treatments in Beijing, China, October 23, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon.

Patients often travel hundreds of miles to city hospitals because of poor facilities in their home regions, creating a wave of cancer “refugees” often living on a shoe-string as they struggle to pay for care.

Wang and her husband Liu hold hands as they walk toward a hospital in Beijing, China, June 23, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon.

“There’s an imbalance between the big cities and small ones. Good doctors don’t want to work in small places,” said Liu, 46, a migrant worker who brought his wife more than 750 km (450 miles) to see a specialist in the capital in May.

Liu serves breakfast for his wife, Wang, in their room at the accommodation where some patients and their family members stay while seeking medical treatments in Beijing, China, June 23, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon.

His wife, Wang, 42, was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the beginning of the year, and was told by family she should leave her hometown in Inner Mongolia for treatment.

Wang takes her medicine at the accommodation where some patients and their family members stay while seeking medical treatments in Beijing, China, June 23, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon.

“If you have some serious illness then you’d better go to Beijing,” said Liu. Both husband and wife asked that Reuters use only their surnames to protect their privacy.

A manager of one of the hotels said most patients stayed for between several months and a year while they waited for treatment.

Wang eats breakfast, which her husband Liu cooked, in her room at the accommodation where some patients and their family members stay while seeking medical treatment in Beijing, China, June 23, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon.

Financial burden

The costs all add up. A cheap train ticket for Wang and Liu’s 16-hour journey was 321 yuan ($48), while a room at the hotel sets them back about 70 yuan a night, half the price of a hospital bed.

Their simple room, with a translucent blue shawl hanging across the door, had a television and fan. They can also cook at the hotel.

Huang is reflected in a mirror as she stands in front of her room at the accommodation where some patients and their family members stay while seeking medical treatments in Beijing, China, June 22, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon.

The financial burden for Chinese patients with serious conditions like cancer or diabetes can be overwhelming. Official data shows that up to 44 percent of families pushed into poverty were impoverished by illness.

A man pushes a wheelchair at the accommodation where some patients and their family members stay while seeking medical treatment in Beijing, China, January 13, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon.

Stories abound of patients or their relatives going to extremes to pay for care: turning to unapproved treatments, sleeping rough or even donning fancy dress in public to raise funds.

Huang shows her CT scan film in her room at the accommodation where patients and their family members stay while seeking medical treatments in Beijing, China, June 22, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon.

State health insurance does reach nearly all of China’s 1.4 billion people, but coverage is basic, meaning patients, on average, foot almost half the bill. That can rise much higher for chronic or complex diseases like cancer.

Huang sits on a bed in her room at the accommodation where patients and their family members stay while seeking medical treatment in Beijing, China, June 22, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon.

“The hardest part for us is the money,” said Pan, 60, who came to the Beijing cancer hotel with his wife, Huang, after she was diagnosed with rectal cancer in 2013. “We are farmers, we have already spent over 270,000 yuan ($40,500) since 2013.”

Pan packs his suitcase as he prepares to check out of the accommodation where some patients and their family members stay while seeking medical treatments in Beijing, China, June 23, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon.

Many people turn to friends, relatives or shadowy lenders to pay for travel and treatment. Many end up in queues outside hospitals paying ticket touts or doctors to speed things up.

A man casts a shadow as he walks along a narrow passageway at the accommodation where some patients and their family members stay while seeking for medical treatments in Beijing, China, January 12, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon.

“Only half our costs can be covered by the medical insurance,” said Pan.

“We’re not city folk who can lend out thousands of yuan at a time. Families in our area are poor. We have to borrow money for treatment.”

By Kim Kyung Hoon. Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Robert Birsel.

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