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DP vows to block medical commercialization

Democratic Party chairman Rep. Kim Han-gil (left) and floor leader Rep. Jun Byung-hun speak to each other at the party’s supreme council meeting at the National Assembly on Friday. (Yonhap News)
Democratic Party chairman Rep. Kim Han-gil (left) and floor leader Rep. Jun Byung-hun speak to each other at the party’s supreme council meeting at the National Assembly on Friday. (Yonhap News)

The gloves came off between the two rival political parties on Friday in a tussle over the government’s plan to deregulate the medical sector, which the opposition claims would be a step toward privatizing health services.

The political debate is likely to escalate over the weekend as the Korea Medical Association, the nation’s largest group of doctors, aims to finalize its walkout plan on Sunday in protest of the government’s push to deregulate the sector.

The main opposition Democratic Party vowed to go all out to block the government’s plan, claiming it will lead to “privatization” of medical services.

“Viewing medical services as an industrial sector that just needs to make more money is a type of pariah capitalist thinking,” DP chairman Kim Han-gil said at a supreme council meeting. “Medical commercialization will inevitably lead to an increase in medical costs, imposing a burden on the people,” he said.

Kim said the government’s unilateral decision would fail if carried out without parliamentary agreement and public support, and urged that the plan be reconsidered.

The party officials said later in the afternoon that it will hold a debate session to examine the government’s new medical policies on Tuesday, in an apparent attempt to intensify its opposition.

The governing Saenuri Party countered by saying the DP’s opposition to the plan is politically motivated and designed to stir up public sentiment ahead of local elections in June.

“The DP may be well aware that allowing medical foundations to set up (profit-seeking) subsidiaries and operate telemedicine services would not make the services more expensive and has nothing to do with privatizing the services,” said Choi Kyoung-hwan, floor leader of the ruling party, at a meeting with party officials. “They are just making use of the issue for the upcoming local election,” he said.

“Privatization is about the government or public institutions selling their properties to the public. Deregulating medical services is a far cry from privatization,” he added.

Tension has grown over the plan since President Park Geun-hye stressed her vision to deregulate the sector as part of plans to reinvigorate the country’s economy.

Currently, Korean hospitals are operated by nonprofit foundations and regulated heavily by the state health insurance system.

The government has recently announced plans to allow hospitals to establish profit-seeking subsidiaries to engage in associated businesses such as in-house agencies to promote medical tourism and to lift the cap on the number of foreign patients. Officials say the plan is meant to draw local and foreign investment to the medical sector so that hospitals can become financially independent.

Doctors, however, have been protesting against the plan, saying that it will allow big hospitals to lure wealthy patients away, differentiate medical services and activate market competition in the health industry.

In a move to assuage angry doctors, the health minister on Wednesday urged that they call off their planned strikes and suggested launching a consultative body to resolve the matter through dialogue. The KMA turned down the offer and said it would stage its walkout as planned within the month.

By Cho Chung-un (